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Politics

Legislative Fight To Continue 2020 Voting Protocols Not Over

Absentee ballot
Chris Miller
/
WFAE

This article is made possible through a partnership between WFAE and Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of our republishing policy.

Voting rights advocates want changes to state election laws. Democrats will likely agree. Republicans also have their eyes on change — just not what voting groups have on their radar.

The League of Women Voters of North Carolina is one of the organizations gearing up to tussle with the General Assembly. Marian Lewin, the chapter’s vice president, says they plan to push for more voting measures in election laws.

“Our principle is that voting should be easy and we want as many eligible people to vote as possible,” Lewin said. “And making voting easier encourages more people to vote.”

But when voting rights advocates approach legislators, they’ll face a Republican leadership seething at the State Board of Elections and how the administration of the elections is controlled.

Key questions loom: Will Republican lawmakers be more focused on the state board and election administration than voting protocols? Do they even think further changes are needed?

The Bipartisan Elections Act

Recognizing that the pandemic would have posed safety risks for voters during the elections, the General Assembly passed a bipartisan elections bill that instituted some temporary measures specific to the 2020 general elections. The governor signed the Bipartisan Election Act in June. It changed the election process in key ways:

  • Expecting a shortage of poll workers, the law expanded restrictions where poll workers lived. Instead of hiring workers from only the precinct, election officials could bring in people who live anywhere in the county.
  • The law provided more time to count absentee mail-in ballots. The expectation was that more people would choose to mail their ballots during the pandemic. Usually, election workers start tallying mail-in ballots three weeks before Election Day. The law added two more weeks.
  • It instructed the state board to use ballot tracking so voters could see if their mail-in ballots arrived.
  • The law allowed unaffiliated voters to assist registered voters in a hospital, clinic, nursing home, assisted living, or other congregate living situations if there weren’t enough multi-partisan assistance teams of two registered voters in the county of different political parties.
  • It established a portal for online voter registration.
  • Legislators agreed that voters who used mail-in ballots only needed one witness instead of two, as previously required by law.

But in August, the League of Women Voters, among other groups, sued the state to get more voting protocols in place for the elections. The State Board of Elections agreed to extend the deadline for when absentee ballots can arrive. The board also put in place a process known as the "cure" to fix mistakes on the return envelope for an absentee ballot.

Pointing to the unprecedented 75% voter participation, Lewin believes the temporary measures helped citizens. Which is why, she says, her staff will again try to persuade legislators.

A Wish List For Change

“We argue or we appeal to legislators regularly on election-related issues. I’ll be honest with you: We’re very concerned that voter ID is coming back,” Lewin said.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a federal judge made a mistake when she blocked NC legislators from enacting a voter ID law.

Lewin adds that as much as the League is on guard for what it does not want to see in state law, its advocates will press for what they’re convinced is needed.

“We’re still going to fight for the cure," she said. "We’re still going to fight for drop boxes. We’re still going to fight for getting rid of a witness. We’re going to fight for online voter registration. We’re going to fight for an expanded deadline for voter registration. The other thing would be to expand the absentee by-mail balloting process. Right now it’s very cumbersome to ask for an absentee ballot.”

Voting rights groups will have to clear a hurdle in order to get Republicans to pay attention to their election wish list.

House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger, and Sen. Paul Newton, a co-chair of the Senate election committee, are outraged that members of the state board settled a lawsuit and implemented some of those changes without notifying legislators.

“We certainly will look at the parts of the Bipartisan Elections Act that will revert to previous law and the parts that will remain in law and see what in there - based on feedback from voters, from lawmakers and the board - of how to move forward with those,” said Joseph Kyzer, spokesperson for Moore. “We certainly continue to believe that a bipartisan elections board is a better process for North Carolinians.”

A bipartisan board is an idea that Moore has been pushing. Instead of the current composite, where the majority reflects the governor’s party, Moore wants the state to adopt a bipartisan board. In this scenario, each party would have two members and the chair would be an independent.

Newton says when the General Assembly convenes in January for the new session, he expects he and his colleagues will review all aspects of the elections, including early voting and absentee mail-in ballots. He also wants to hear what other people think.

“We need to take good suggestions from across the aisle and from the governor and others — any stakeholder who wants to weigh in on improvements to our election process,” said Newton, who represents sections of Cabarrus and Union counties. “We are open to that. I hope that we address this thoroughly in 2021.”

Lawmakers decided in June that only three of the measures in the Bipartisan Elections Act will be permanent: the online portal to request an absentee mail-in ballot, the ballot tracking service, and allowance for unaffiliated voters to help residents in congregate living arrangements with their ballots.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat who helped draft the law, isn’t sure how receptive or dismissive Republicans will be about keeping the other temporary measures.

“I think that there might be some chance,” Harrison says, recalling the cooperative spirit in the General Assembly when Democrats and Republicans worked together on the act.

But, she suspects, now that Republican leaders are upset with the State Board of Elections, it will be difficult to get additional changes enacted.

Still, Harrison says that election legislation should be revisited. If she had her way, Harrison says, all of the temporary provisions in the law would become permanent.

“We do not know how long this pandemic will affect voting behavior and COVID-19 will certainly not be our last pandemic,” she said. “The changes we adopted contributed to a smoother and safer election.”

Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the North Carolina branch of the NAACP, gives the administration of the elections a grade of “C minus or D.”

“I think there is a lot that was left to be desired. I think quite a bit could have been done differently and handled more effectively,” Spearman said. “The absentee ballot process was just terrible.”

Spearman says he heard from African American residents that some first-time voters had difficulty figuring out what address information for the witness was required on the return envelope for the absentee mail-in ballot.

“On the envelopes that were used for the absentee ballots, there was only one line which for the most part, I believe, left people wondering, 'What I should include on this line? My physical address without the city, state, and ZIP code?' Because there wasn't enough room and that got a lot of people into some difficulties,” he said.

Spearman was part of the group that gave suggestions about the envelope design to the State Board of Elections. He says he and advocates recommended two lines on the envelope for the witness address. According to Spearman, board members opted to go with one line. Now, Spearman fears some ballots were not counted because of the envelope issue.

County boards of elections were instructed to notify voters who sent in absentee mail-in ballots if there were problems or questions about their return envelopes but Spearman says some corrections were not returned in time for the ballot to be counted.

As a member of the Guilford County Board of Elections, Spearman says he saw the problems voters had with the witness address on the ballot envelope.

“Some of the greatest points of contention in the board meetings centered around witness addresses and the cure, or lack thereof,” Spearman said.

The NAACP will be at the Legislative Building to give their input, Spearman says, when the elections go under a microscope. And, not only about the envelope. Spearman believes the two-witness requirement for absentee ballots should be removed from the law.

“I believe one witness is sufficient to establish the fact that it was actually the voter who filled out the ballot and signed the envelope,” Spearman said. “The simpler, the better. In as much as it worked during COVID-19, it can continue to work. Complicating the process can easily become weaponry for more suppression.”

The General Assembly enacted the two-witness requirement after an investigation uncovered election fraud in the race for the 9th Congregational District in 2018. Prosecutors say a Republican operative illegally harvested absentee ballots.

Harrison points out that North Carolina is only one of three states with a two-witness requirement. She says it’s time for legislators to take another look at it.

“As expected, we saw a substantial increase in voting by mail, and eliminating the second witness requirement made it a lot easier for folks who were uncomfortable going to the polls to vote,” Harrison said. “This change is especially important since 70% of North Carolinians live in households with two adults or less. So if you’re ever in a situation where you can't get out for whatever reason, I think, having one witness requirement should be considered.”

Organizations that had workers on the ground urging voters to vote hail early voting as a critical element for voter participation.

Delores Johnson Hurt, president of the Charlotte League of Women Voters, says “the League really pushed absentee by-mail voting and that was highly successful. I think what worked was access to voting through those 33 early voting sites.”

Hurt says the decision by the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections to expand the number of early voting sites from 22 to 33 was critical. Even more significant, she says, was the type of location.

“We were fortunate to have the Bojangles Coliseum. We had the Spectrum and we had the Panthers' stadium to make it as convenient as possible — also for folks who aren’t driving and could get there through public transit, for example,” Hurt said. “That was really very helpful for the voters in Mecklenburg County.”

“If I could keep this large amount of early voting sites, I would definitely do that,” said Robert Dawkins, of Action NC, a Charlotte organization that works on social justice issues in low and moderate-income neighborhoods. Dawkins said the takeaway from the elections is that the increased number of early voting sites combined with easier access to absentee ballots made a big difference.

“People received absentee mail-in ballot requests mailed to their house and that, I think, made absentee ballots successful,” Dawkins said.

Could The 10-Day Extension For Accepting Ballots Become The Norm?

Damon Circosta, the chairman of the State Board of Elections, says he doesn’t see that happening.

“This was part of a legal settlement pertaining only to the COVID-19 election," he said. "The normal statute requires three days post-election grace period for ballots to get in. I don’t anticipate much appetite from anyone in the General Assembly to change that law.”

Rep. Kelly Alexander, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, says his support for having more days to accept mail-in ballots is not universal.

“My thought is it’s a case-by-case consideration. Three days — what’s in our basic statute right now — works fine if you assume that the postal service is not being messed with,” Alexander said. “If in the future the postal system functioning is not part of the things that people are concerned about, I think the three or four days work fine. The problem is when you mucky around with the postal service, slowing down the mail, then that’s a way of manipulating the ability of citizens to have their votes counted.”

In August, news reports detailed how specific changes and service cuts implemented by postmaster general Louis DeJoy slowed mail delivery.

Republican Rep. Larry Pittman, who represents parts of Cabarrus and Rowan counties, does not buy into the idea of more days for ballots to arrive.

“I cannot say whether legislators in the majority are contemplating making the 10-day extension permanent. I certainly am not, and would vigorously oppose such action,” Pittman said. “Election Day should be the end of the election, except for some legitimate absentee ballots that might arrive late, so long as they are genuinely postmarked by Election Day, period.”

Voting right advocates know they will face some opposition to one, a few, or all of the items on their wish list. The unknown is whether they’ll convince enough lawmakers to make any change to election laws.

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