By Jan Wolfe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. federal appeals court on Tuesday left in place North Carolina's plan for counting absentee ballots that arrive after Election Day, dealing a setback to President Donald Trump's re-election campaign.
In a 12-3 decision, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a bid to halt the North Carolina State Board of Elections from tallying ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 that arrive before Nov. 12.
The Trump campaign, the North Carolina Republican Party, and others had sued over the timetable, saying that it violated the state's election code.
"All ballots must still be mailed on or before Election Day," Circuit Judge James Wynn wrote for the court.
"The change is simply an extension from three to nine days after Election Day for a timely ballot to be received and counted. That is all."
The decision upheld an Oct. 14 decision by U.S. District Judge William Osteen in Greensboro, who said he did not want to cause “judicially created confusion” by changing the rules weeks before the election.
The Trump campaign appealed that decision, saying Democrats on the North Carolina State Board of Elections had engaged in a "wholesale alteration" of the state's election code.
The Nov. 3 election promises to be the nation’s largest test of voting by mail due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and Democrats and Republicans are locked in numerous lawsuits that will shape how millions of Americans vote this autumn.
Trump has repeatedly and without evidence claimed that mail-in voting will lead to widespread fraud, while his challenger Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have sought to remove obstacles to voting by mail.
"The extension of the receipt deadline from three days after Election Day to nine days, in addition to blatantly undermining a statute duly enacted by the General Assembly, risks giving procrastinating voters another excuse to wait, and perhaps miss the postmark deadline," the Trump campaign's lawyers argued in a filing to the Fourth Circuit.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Michael Perry)