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With veto-override inevitable, NC Democrats find solace in GOP elections bill they helped shape

Election workers prepare and package absentee ballot requests at the Wake County Board of Elections office in Raleigh Thursday afternoon September 15, 2022.
Jonathon Gruenke
for WUNC
Election workers prepare and package absentee ballot requests at the Wake County Board of Elections office in Raleigh Thursday afternoon September 15, 2022.

In the end, North Carolina Democrats unanimously rejected a Republican-backed elections bill that passed through the Republican majority state legislature along party lines two weeks ago. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper promptly vetoed the legislation.

Despite their opposition, however, Democrats did all they could to soften the bill's potential impact on North Carolina's elections system. They did so by working with Republican bill sponsors to amend the bill's language on everything from same-day registration to using signature verification for validating absentee-by-mail ballots.

"The reality is that this legislation, Senate Bill 747, is going to be law," said state Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, D-Mecklenburg, acknowledging that it is a matter of when — not if — the North Carolina General Assembly's Republican super-majority will override Cooper's veto.

"So, for me, my obligation is to protect the fundamental right to vote for everyone across this great state," Mohammed added.

Mohammed worked with Republicans on amending several parts of the elections bill. Among the more significant changes Mohammed sought was the scaling back of a statewide requirement that county elections boards use signature verification software to validate mail-in ballots, even though such software is not in wide use and is somewhat unproven.

"Are we going to potentially be rejecting legitimate voters from making their voice heard because some software kicked their ballot out?" Mohammed wondered.

The WUNC Politics Podcast is a free-flowing discussion of what we're hearing in the back hallways of the General Assembly and on the campaign trail across North Carolina.

Under the amended legislation, the signature verification program will be limited to a 10-county pilot next year, and during the pilot no ballots will be thrown out solely on the basis of failed signature verification.

Mohammed said he is grateful the Republican bill sponsors were open to discussion, even though he still thinks the overall legislation is not necessary because GOP-stoked fears of voter fraud, and the need for more restrictive voting laws, are baseless.

"It's a bill that's out there searching for a problem," Mohammed told WUNC.

Rep. Allison Dahle, D-Wake, tried in vain to convince Republicans the effective date of their sweeping elections bill should be pushed back a year from 2024 to 2025, to give the under-funded state elections board more time to get voters adequately educated and informed about significant changes wrought by the legislation.

Those changes include the elimination of a three-day grace period for counting mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day, something Republicans say will boost public confidence in final results.

However, Dahle did succeed in getting an amendment through the GOP-controlled process, one she dubbed "pizza and pens."

"I ask that food or beverages for precinct officials or other workers at the polling place or at the county board of elections be allowed to be brought in and also ink pens and personal protection equipment," Dahle said, explaining her amendment during floor debate ahead of the final House vote two weeks ago.

The bill prohibits the use of private donations for elections administration, something that occurred in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, which angered people on the partisan right when funds came from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, whose platform was seen by people on the right as biased against conservative voices.

An earlier amendment offered by Democrats in the senate carved out an exception for in-kind donations to individual voting sites. Dahle's amendment provided a more detailed definition of such donations.

In the senate, where the elections bill originated, Democrats also saw most of their amendments squashed by the chamber's Republican majority. But it wasn't all doom and gloom for Democrats.

Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe, worked with Republican counterparts to hammer out a negotiated amendment that will allow absentee-by-mail voters to fix a curable deficiency with their ballot, like failing to sign the voter certification, for example, by submitting documentation by email.

"A very bad bill was made less bad through the Democratic efforts and Republicans listening and taking those things that Democrats wanted into consideration and accepting some, not all, but some," said Bob Phillips, the executive director at Common Cause North Carolina.

Phillips is a regular at the legislature, lobbying lawmakers on voting issues like ballot access.

When the GOP bill first surfaced, it required anyone using same-day registration to cast a provisional ballot, which needs more verification steps than regular ballots. In the House, Democrats sought to have that part of the bill modified. Now it will allow same-day registrants to cast regular ballots as long as they have the right documentation.

So, with an override of the governor's veto virtually guaranteed, perhaps Democrats can take some solace in the impact they had on the final legislation.

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Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.