Bill easing N.C. absentee ballot access goes to governor

A limited number of lawmakers gather on the House floor as the North Carolina General Assembly opens a new session amid the current COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, April 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH — North Carolina lawmakers are sending Gov. Roy Cooper a bill making it easier for voters to access absentee ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic this fall while ensuring in-person voting sites are clean and safe.

Despite complaints by a few Democrats about a photo voter identification provision, the legislation received bipartisan support on Thursday in final votes in the Senate and House.

The bill’s chief proponents said the rule changes for the mail-in ballots, along with funding to pay poll workers and buy plenty of personal protective equipment for them and voters, will go a long way toward an orderly, accessible election in November.

The use of traditional absentee by-mail ballots, usually fewer than 5% of all votes cast in a North Carolina election, is expected to spike because people at higher risk for complications from the coronavirus won’t venture out to voting centers and precincts. State law already allows any registered voter to cast an absentee by-mail ballot.

The bill expands the options for registered voters to receive an absentee ballot request form, and state election officials will create by September an online site to submit completed requests. Instead of two witnesses to sign an envelope with a filled-out ballot, a voter would only need one this year. More than $27 million also would be distributed to the state and county election boards for things like ballot equipment and security upgrades. Supplies like face masks and single-use pens or cotton swabs to fill out ballots likely will be purchased.

Cooper will review the bill coming to his desk, spokesperson Dory MacMillan said Thursday. Cooper has said he likes legislation that makes it easier to use absentee ballots.

A handful of Democrats said the measure didn’t go far enough to help voters isolated by the pandemic or who aren’t regular absentee voters. They wanted the state to offer prepaid postage for ballot envelopes, to make Election Day a state holiday and give counties flexible hours for early in-person voting sites.

Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican who helped shepherd the House bill, said there was some items he didn’t like or were left out, too. “It has been thoroughly vetted,” Daniel said before the Senate voted 37-12 for the measure. “From where I sit, that looks like a compromise.”

The House agreed to the Senate changes by a vote of 105-14, but not before renewed criticisms of language that would add public assistance identification cards to the list of qualifying photo IDs that could be used should a voter ID mandate in North Carolina’s constitution ever get enforced. Courts have blocked a separate law that carries out the mandate, so it likely won’t happen this year.