Bill seeks easier N.C. ballot access in fall during pandemic

FILE A voter casts a ballot in the 2016 general election. Durham, N.C. Eamon Queeny, North State Journal

RALEIGH — North Carolina voters would have more options in requesting absentee ballots and officials would get funds to keep precincts cleaned and staffed, according to legislation advancing at the General Assembly to address COVID-19 challenges.

The measure that cleared two House committees on Wednesday prepares for November’s high-stakes election to occur amid the pandemic.

Fewer than 5% of the 4.8 million votes in North Carolina during the 2016 general election were cast using traditional mail-in absentee ballots. But that portion is expected to spike this fall as some may want to avoid public places, especially if they are at higher risk of developing severe complications from the coronavirus.

While early in-person voting and Election Day voting will continue, elections boards worry they won’t have enough workers to staff precincts and voting centers.

“Because of the pandemic, voting is going to change,” said Rep. Holly Grange, a New Hanover County Republican and one of four chief sponsors of the bill — two Democrats and two Republicans. “So we wanted to make sure we gave the county boards of elections the resources that they needed and the guidance so that they could execute a safe election.”

Any North Carolina registered voter already can cast a mail-in ballot and doesn’t need a reason to do so. A person currently must fill out a ballot request form and deliver it in person or by mail to the elections board in their home county. The county board then sends an absentee “application” and a ballot to the voter, who then fills out both. Two witness signatures are needed on the ballot envelope.

Under the measure heading to the House floor on Thursday, people also will be able to return their completed request forms by email or fax. The state board would create by September an online portal whereby requests could be submitted. And in response to people remaining at home due to health concerns, only one witness would be needed this fall. It would be a felony for an elections worker or board member to send or deliver a ballot to someone who didn’t ask for one.

The bill also distributes $27 million in federal and state funds to the State Board of Elections and boards in all 100 counties for upgraded security and equipment. The state board also must purchase and distribute personal protective equipment to county election officials. Election officials preparing for a primary runoff next month for a western North Carolina congressional district already plan to provide single-use pens, hand sanitizer and protective barriers at in-person voting sites.

The bill lacks the demands of some Democrats and voting-rights activists who are urging broader access to balloting and flexible early-voting times during these elections for president, governor, U.S. Senate and scores of other seats. Some Democratic voters and groups have already sued to seek changes.

The litigation comes during a decade where Republican legislation on redistricting, photo voter identification and early voting hours — and the lawsuits challenging them — have tainted waters of cooperation.

“Our lawmakers don’t have the best record of working together to effectively deliver for voters in this way,” Tomas Lopez of Democracy North Carolina said in a conference call on the eve of the committee meetings. Democracy North Carolina is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed late last week.

Also missing from the legislation is recommendations by State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell seeking prepaid postage on ballot-return envelopes and to make Election Day made a state holiday, which could expand the pool of poll workers. The measure instead directs funds be used to recruit workers and increase their pay.

Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison of Guilford County, another chief bill sponsor, said while the measure omits some items the board wanted, “I think we’re going to have a safer election and protect the public health in November.”

Any measure also would have to clear the Senate, where elections committee Chairman Ralph Hise of Mitchell County said fellow Republicans are largely on board with the measure. The bill also has been coordinated with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the state board, Grange said. Cooper would be asked to sign the final bill into law.