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The articles from Inside Politics With Steve Harrison appear first in his weekly newsletter, which takes a deeper look at local politics, including the latest news on the Charlotte City Council, what's happening with Mecklenburg County's Board of Commissioners, the North Carolina General Assembly and much more.

NC GOP's 'Election Integrity Act' Would Make Voting Harder – But Not By Much

Voting Machines
Flickr / Phil Roeder
A citizen votes on a paper ballot during the final day of early voting Monday in Lancaster, Ohio.

As Republicans nationwide have filed bills to restrict voting, the North Carolina GOP filed the “Election Integrity Act” last week, its first election-related bill.

Democratic State Sen. Jay Chaudhuri said the bill is the state GOP’s next phase in disenfranchisement, after a decade of brutal fights over photo ID and gerrymandering.

Jay Chaudhuri
Jay Chaudhuri

He told the Raleigh News & Observer that the legislature “should look to make access to the ballot easier, and not harder. Instead, our Republican friends have doubled down on putting up barriers that take away the voices based on what we look like and where we live. The developments of this week follow a decade-long tradition of disenfranchisement of voters by Republicans.”

The Election Integrity Act would make voting harder – but not by much. And it would do far less than bills filed in other statehouses.

Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed a 95-page bill this week that would, among other things, allow the State Election Board to take over county election boards when it believes it’s necessary.

In North Carolina’s bill, the biggest proposed change is that absentee mail ballots would need to be received by county elections boards by 5 p.m. on Election Day to be counted.

Current North Carolina law allows for them to be counted if they arrive three days after Election Day (so long as they were postmarked on or before that day). A controversial legal settlement by the State Board of Elections extended that deadline to nine days after the election, but that was only for November 2020, during the pandemic.

Gerry Cohen, the longtime attorney for the General Assembly, spoke about the history of absentee mail voting deadlines in the state.

He said that until 1973, mail ballots had to be received on the Saturday before the election. From 1973 to 2009, mail ballots had to be received the day before the election, he said. In 2009, the law was changed to allow ballots mailed by Election Day to be counted so long as they arrived three days after Election Day.

The GOP bill comes after Democrats dominated mail voting in the November 2020 election. Joe Biden had nearly 700,000 absentee mail votes in the state, compared with nearly 278,000 for Donald Trump.

But it would place North Carolina squarely in the middle in terms of when absentee mail ballots are counted.

Thirty-one states require mail ballots to arrive by Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That includes a long list of “blue” states: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin.

If someone filled out their ballot on the Saturday before an election, it might not arrive in the mail by Election Day. But the voter could still bring the ballot to the county elections board office. It would count, so long as it arrived by 5 p.m. on Election Day.

The bill would also move the absentee ballot request deadline from a week before Election Day to two weeks before.

“That may be more significant,” Cohen said.

He said the current one-week deadline is arguably “unfair” to voters. If someone requests a mail ballot a week before the election, they might not receive it in time for the voter to then fill it out and return it.

“If someone waited for a week before the election to request a mail ballot, the likelihood of getting it back was unrealistic,” he said.

Mecklenburg County Board of Elections

The N.C. GOP bill would also prohibit the State Board of Elections from accepting money from third parties to pay for staffing or operations of an election. This is similar to measures proposed in Arizona, where Republicans are trying to stop elections boards from accepting grants from Facebook-funded groups.

The bill would also set aside $5 million to create a “mobile voter ID unit.” A federal court has already said the state’s photo ID law can proceed. It now faces a challenge in state court, where a trial is expected to begin this spring. The mobile ID unit would go to someone’s home if they can’t get to the county elections office to get an ID.

Republicans also filed a bill this week that would address the State Board of Elections’ decision to settle several election lawsuits brought by Democratic-leaning groups. That settlement extended the state’s mail ballot deadline from three days after the election to nine days after. It also allowed voters to sign a “cure affidavit” to say a mail ballot was theirs – even if it didn’t have a witness signature.

That bill would require that both the House speaker and Senate leader approve a settlement the attorney general enters into if the legislature was a party to the lawsuit.

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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.