NCSBE director omitted dealings with ballot portal vendor from testimony before lawmakers

N.C. State Board of Elections executive director Karen Brinson Bell. Photo via N.C. Senate Committee on Redistricting and Elections.

RALEIGH — An outside money grant from a Democrat-linked organization would have paid for the majority of North Carolina’s absentee ballot portal, according to email discussions occurring at least nine months before the pandemic arrived in North Carolina. N.C. State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell omitted the grant and past interaction with the portal vendor in remarks given during hearings with lawmakers in 2020.

The portal, powered by Democracy Live, is currently active. Grants offered in 2019 by Democracy Live to state election officials to defray costs of the system came from Tusk Philanthropies; a group whose former head now serves as chief of staff for the Biden administration’s U.S. Department of Education and previously served as chief of staff to Jill Biden when she was Second Lady. The Tusk grant was declined according to the N.C. State Board of Elections (NCSBE).

Emails obtained by North State Journal show conversations between NCSBE staffer Veronica Degraffenreid, Bell, and Democracy Live’s Brian Finney beginning in June 2019. Some of the emails addressed a grant opportunity and others centered on a “UOCAVA and accessible absentee solution.” UOCAVA stands for Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.

In the email exchanges related to grant money that took place in mid-September 2019, Finney mentions money being offered through Tusk Philanthropies that could “fund 80-90% of the cost.”

According to vendor records provided by the NCSBE, Democracy Live was paid a total of $423,950 in 2020 by the NCSBE for its services. Based on Finney’s estimate the grant would cover “80-90%” of the costs, had the NCSBE taken the Tusk grant, the amount the state would have received in that grant could have been up to or over $339,160.

In March 2020, officials in the state were dealing with the emergence of COVID-19 in North Carolina and lawmakers held meetings and hearings to determine how to manage various challenges the pandemic presented, including that year’s upcoming election season.

During a late March 2020 meeting, NCSBE Director Karen Brinson Bell asked lawmakers to make absentee voting by mail easier, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.

In her March 26 NCBSE recommendations Brinson Bell asked that voters be allowed to request mail ballots through an online portal, and to allow them to return ballot request forms by fax or email. At the time of her ask, voters had to return ballot request forms by mail or deliver them to a county elections office in person.

She also requested that the state eliminate the requirement that a mail ballot be witnessed by two people or a notary. Because of social distancing, Brinson Bell recommended that the state require only one witness or eliminate the witness requirement altogether, which would “further reduce risk.”

Brinson Bell also asked that the state pay for postage to make it easier for people to return mail ballots.

NSJ’s coverage of Brinson Bell’s ask included $400 million in CARES Act money for elections. In a statement at the time, Brinson Bell said, “We believe the legislative recommendations released today would go a long way toward ensuring safe, accessible elections in 2020.”

Brinson Bell went on to say that “We look forward to continuing to work with the General Assembly to respond to the unprecedented threat facing our elections system at this time.”

Later, at an April 7, 2020, meeting of the NCGA House Select Committee on COVID-19’s Continuity of Government Operations working group, Brinson Bell’s presentation included an “immediate” COVID-19 response item which was to “Establish online portal for absentee requests.” (Audio)

This was the first public mention by Bell of an online portal for absentee ballots.

Her April testimony mainly encompassed logistics of offline processes for increased numbers of mail-in ballots and absentee balloting, as well as overseas absentee ballots.

There was no mention of the past year’s ballot portal discussions with Democracy Live or the 2019 Tusk Philanthropies grant offer passed on to NCSBE officials by Democracy Live in Brinson Bell’s March and April remarks and presentations.

North State Journal asked Brinson Bell why Democracy Live and the grant offer were omitted during her testimony, Brinson Bell referred back to a slide in her presentation on the need for an absentee ballot portal.

“We did not request nor receive a Tusk Philanthropies grant, nor was Democracy Live contracted with the State Board of Elections at that time,” Brinson Bell said in an email response.

During the meeting, Brinson Bell discussed the implementation of emergency rules on March 20, 2020, and that “unfortunately, I don’t think any of us had that foresight” when it came to the pandemic and infectious disease.

Brinson Bell cited federal deadlines for military and overseas ballots, calling that an “area of great concern” because “some of the mail system has been shut off” and was not delivering to other countries.

“When we started factoring that in, knowing that we had to have absentee ballot mail envelopes ready, any other procedures in place, our training and so forth, we knew between your legislative schedule – your session schedule – and what we need to prepare for, that our long-term response is really about three months,” Brinson Bell told the committee.

She said there was “a lot of conversation” around a move to all mail balloting and whether it was a feasible option for the state considering the personnel needs, costs, and logistics to accomplish that task.

Less than 5% of North Carolina’s 4.8 million votes cast during the 2016 general election used the traditional process for mail-in absentee ballots. Bell said during the April 7 meeting that number was expected to spike and that the NCSBE was expecting a 30-40% voter participation in November.

Bell said that “Then we’re looking at is that enough to shift from an in-person vote to mail-in voting and the states that are already doing this said it took them not months but years to be prepared.”

At the time, the chairman of the committee was Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) who has since left the legislature. Lewis said during discussion that the online portal “could be beneficial if done right,” but neither Lewis nor any other committee member asked for any details about the online portal suggestion.

On July 17, 2020, an NCSBE order cited a “crush of absentee ballot requests” in other states, bolstering the premise of an online ballot portal.

In August 2020, Brinson Bell announced a “cleaner” version of the state’s absentee ballot request form and an upcoming launch of a new online absentee ballot portal.

“This new form is more user friendly and one of many steps we have taken to make voting simpler for North Carolinians in the era of COVID-19,” Brinson Bell said in an Aug. 19, 2020, statement. “Whether by mail or in-person, we want folks to vote in the manner they’re most comfortable with this fall.”

The online absentee ballot portal powered by Democracy Live was publicly named and officially launched just a few weeks later on Sept. 1.

“At the State Board, our goal is to ensure all voters can cast a ballot, whether in person or by mail. “The Absentee Ballot Request Portal will streamline voting by mail for voters who choose this voting option,” Bell said in a Sept. 1, 2020, statement.

That NCSBE’s statement also mentioned for the first time publicly that the “State Board has collaborated with Democracy Live” to introduce the new platform despite having been in communications with the company since at least June of 2019.

On Feb. 10, 2022, the NCSBE announced that the ballot portal had been reopened for the 2022 primary elections. The portal will also be active this fall during the November general election.

About A.P. Dillon 747 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_