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Top NC Republican Dismisses Ideas To Make Mail Voting Easier

Erik (HASH) Hersman
Senate leader Phil Berger said Wednesday he opposes some recommendations to make mail voting easier in the November election.

North Carolina’s top Republican lawmaker, Senate leader Phil Berger, said Wednesday he opposes some recommendations made by the North Carolina Board of Elections to make it easier to vote by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Elections executive director Karen Brinson Bell has proposed a number of changes, including eliminating the requirement that mail ballots be signed by two witnesses or a notary, or only requiring one witness. She says that would encourage social distancing.

And she has proposed making it easier for people to request mail ballots.

In an interview with WFAE, Berger said he’s concerned that if North Carolina loosens its laws on mail voting it could cause problems similar to the 9th Congressional District mail ballot scandal in 2018.

“I understand that some progressive, liberal Democratic groups would like to roll that back and put us back to where we were,” Berger said. “I’m afraid that’s where the elections director would take us with her proposals.”

Credit NC General Assembly
NC General Assembly
Senate leader Phil Berger doesn't support some recommendations made by the NC Board of Elections to make mail voting easier for the November election.

In the 9th District two years ago, the Board of Elections called for a new election after state investigators said a political operative in Bladen County illegally collected mail ballots on behalf of Republican Mark Harris. In response, the General Assembly, in a bipartisan vote, passed a law in 2019 that tightened requirements on collecting mail ballot requests.

Because of the coronavirus, the North Carolina Democratic Party proposed the state allow anyone to collect mail ballot request forms as well as mail ballots. Today, only the voter or a relative can handle ballot request forms and ballots.

Brinson Bell was hired in a 3-2 vote by the Board of Elections. The three Democrats voted for her, while the board's two Republicans voted no.

She did not endorse the most sweeping proposals by state Democrats. She also did not propose sending every registered voter a mail ballot, while still allowing them to vote on Election Day. 

She said the state doesn’t have enough time to prepare to handle so many mail ballots.

Brinson Bell also recommended making Election Day a state holiday so it would be easier for the state to recruit volunteer poll workers. Most of the state’s poll workers are elderly, the group most at risk to COVID-19.

Berger also rejected that idea.

“I don’t see us making Election Day a state holiday,” he said. “We’ve spent the last 20 years making Election Day a two-week event. And to say the Election Day itself is a state holiday, it seems to me contrary to do what we’ve done up to this point. We’ve tried to make it as easy as possible for people to vote on Saturdays and other days of the week.”

It’s possible other recommendations could be approved by legislators. Brinson Bell proposed having pre-paid postage on mail ballots, and some Republicans have supported that in the past.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.