GOP Election Bills Are Coming In North Carolina. How Far Will They Go?
North Carolina was home to some of the most bitter fights over voting last decade.
But while states like Georgia and Arizona are now considering bills to limit absentee by mail voting, North Carolina has been completely quiet in 2021 – so far.
Everyone is wondering when that will change.
“Raleigh is rife with rumors,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, which advocates for expanded voting rights and an independent commission to draw political maps.
GOP Senate leader Phil Berger noted there is still a month left in the session for new bills to the filled.
“I think you’ll see some legislation,” he said this week in an interview.
But Berger wouldn’t give details – except that Republicans are going to try and limit the State Board of Elections' ability to change voting rules.
“I have some personal concerns about not just how the board was able last year to make the changes before the election,” he said.
He’s referring to the Democratic-controlled board’s decision last fall to settle multiple lawsuits brought by Mark Elias, the Democratic Party’s most prominent voting-rights attorney.
The biggest change was how voters were allowed to fix or “cure” absentee mail ballots that didn’t have a witness signature. The Board of Elections voted to allow voters to sign an affidavit saying the mail ballot was theirs – even if there was no witness signature. The board also allowed mail ballots to be counted nine days after the election as long as they were postmarked by Election Day.
Republicans sued over the changes.
In a victory for Democrats, the mail ballot extension was upheld. In a victory for the GOP, the provision allowing people to cure mail ballots without getting a witness signature was shot down.
Phillips, of Common Cause, said a bill defining the board’s powers may be difficult for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to veto. The bill may be non-controversial and narrow enough that it will be difficult to rally Democratic opposition against it.
But it’s unclear how much appetite there is among North Carolina Republicans to change election laws after they had a successful 2020.
Although they lost the governor’s race, the GOP won most of the council of state races. Former President Trump won. Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis won. Republican Paul Newby narrowly defeated Cheri Beasley for chief justice of the state Supreme Court. And in what was supposed to be a Blue Wave election, the GOP picked up four seats in the state House.
In a column published in the Raleigh News & Observer, voting rights advocates Bob Hall and Rick Henderson – the former editor of the John Locke Foundation’s Carolina Journal – wrote that Republicans benefited in 2020 from measures designed to make voting easier.
▪ More Republicans than Democrats used same-day registration; they showed an ID, registered and cast a retrievable ballot during early voting.
▪ More Republicans than Democrats successfully used a provisional ballot because they were in the wrong precinct or had not updated their registration.
▪ A bigger share of registered Republicans than Democrats voted on the last Saturday of early voting, a day legislators had cut but restored in 2020 with extra hours.
But with Donald Trump not on the ballot in 2022, are Republicans worried they will lose those first-time voters?
Phillips said that’s likely a concern. But he thinks the GOP’s success in 2020 makes it harder for Republicans to drum up support for more restrictions on voting.
“Our election laws served everyone well,” he said. “It's hard for the majority to make the case that we need to turn the clock back and make voting harder.”
So what other changes could be coming?
For Republicans, establishing a photo ID law has been their biggest prize. But the General Assembly has already done that, and the legislation is tied up in the courts.
A federal three-judge panel ruled in December that the state’s photo ID law could proceed. But there is still a pending lawsuit in state court. That trial is expected to start next month.
It’s possible the GOP could require a photo ID with absentee mail ballots.
And the GOP could reduce the number of days in early voting, as well as restrict same-day registration.
Some states are considering prohibiting boards of elections from mailing every voter a mail ballot request form. In 2020 and in past elections, North Carolina has mailed every household a mail-ballot request form.
And some states want to prohibit states from accepting grant money from third parties. North Carolina received money in 2020 from the Center for Election Innovation and Research that paid for two educational mailers. The state received another grant that paid for the “I Voted” pens given out in November.
The biggest change Republicans could make would be to do away with no excuse absentee by-mail voting.
Phillips said the GOP can’t overreach because of Cooper’s ability to veto. And he said the Democratic caucus would be “hell-bent on sustaining a veto.”