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House GOP Takes Different Tack In NC Absentee Deadline Bill

Chris Miller

Some North Carolina Republicans are taking a different tack on legislative efforts to move up mail-in absentee balloting deadlines by also giving citizens more time to vote on the front end. But Democrats say the idea still treats voters unequally.

The House elections committee voted along party lines on Wednesday for a GOP measure that requires traditional absentee ballots to be received by county officials by Election Day in order to be counted.

Like a similar bill in the Senate, it would eliminate the current three-day grace period in state law for county boards to receive ballot envelopes in the mail that are postmarked by the date of the election. Against the wishes of Republican legislators, that period was extended to nine days for last November's election following a lawsuit settlement between the State Board of Elections and a pro-union group addressing the pandemic and mail delays.

Setting ahead the deadline to turn in absentee ballots in person or have them arrive in the mail by the actual election or primary day will make it more likely important races are settled quickly, said Rep. Grey Mills, an Iredell County Republican and bill sponsor. A majority of states already have a similar deadline, he said.

“The objective of this bill is to seek to provide clarity ... to election outcomes, hopefully on election night or as soon as possible thereafter," Mills told the committee. ”Voter confidence will increase because of this."

In contrast to the Senate measure, the House bill also would direct county elections boards to send absentee ballots to applicants starting 63 days before the date of an even-numbered year general election, instead of the current 60 days. The distribution date for primaries also would be 53 days before the election, instead of 50.

North Carolina's current 60-day window made the state the first in the nation to allow voters to turn in ballots in early September for the Nov. 4 election. Now it would be even longer.

“I think it’s a tremendously available amount of time to get your business done,” said Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican. The state already doesn't require an excuse for someone to vote by mail, and provides 17 days of early in-person voting in all 100 counties.

But House Democrats weren't accepting the proposal. They said voters expect to have their ballots count as long as they get postmarked by the election date. Mail-in balloting was extremely popular last fall as people aimed to reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Legislation will be “asking a person to mail their ballot at least 10 days before Election Day, which means they would be casting their ballot before I had to cast my ballot,” said Rep. Verla Insko, an Orange County Democrat. “And in those 10 days, I could learn something about a candidate that may make me change my mind.”

Many Democrats want to make permanent the nine-day window to receive mailed ballots. More than 11,600 mail-in ballots received in the first three days after the Nov. 4 election were lawfully counted, according to State Board of Elections data. Another 2,000 received during the next six days allowed under the 2020 rules also were counted.

A record 5.5 million ballots were cast overall last fall in North Carolina. Still, Caroline Fry with the election advocacy group Democracy North Carolina told the committee many people face significant voter access challenges.

“I urge you to prioritize making voting more simple, safe and fair — not erecting new barriers that make it harder to vote," Fry said in opposing the measure.

Any Republican voting bill deemed to limit voting and gaining final General Assembly approval would likely receive Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto stamp. Republicans lack enough seats to override vetoes on their own.

Absentee voting bills are among hundreds filed in state legislatures this year after numerous allegations nationwide about the 2020 elections but few certified voting problems anywhere, including North Carolina.

The House elections committee also voted separately for a bill that would bar elections boards from accepting private funds to administer elections. Millions of dollars were received from entities to purchase single-use pens for voters and to provide bonuses to workers at early voting sites for last fall's elections. Republicans pushing the measure said outside donations raise questions of election influence by the donors.