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NC Republicans advance bill limiting mail-in ballot counting

Boxes of absentee ballots received in Catawba County in 2020.
David Boraks
Boxes of absentee ballots received in Catawba County in 2020.

With the legislative year nearing an end, North Carolina Republicans on Wednesday advanced a string of measures that voting rights groups fear would prevent lawfully cast ballots from being counted and discourage participation in the 2022 election.

The bills the GOP moved through the House rules committee are unlikely to become law, as they would almost assuredly lack the support of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and enough Democratic state lawmakers to override a possible veto.

Among the measures Republicans are pursuing is a plan to prevent the counting of absentee ballots that arrive at county elections offices after polls close on Election Day.

Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican and bill sponsor, said the extra time the state offered for ballot collecting in 2020 as part of its effort to make mail-in voting more accessible during the pandemic unnecessarily lengthened the vote counting process and undermined voters' confidence in the results because it took several days after the election for then-President Donald Trump to be declared North Carolina's winner but the overall national loser to Democrat Joe Biden.

“Everybody knows when Election Day is. It’s when the votes are all in, and vote counting begins," said state Daniel said. "Every day that passes after that creates the possibility of distrust in the process. Ideally, we’d like to have a winner on Election Night.”

In 2020, the state extended the grace period for mail-in ballots to nine days due to the pandemic and U.S. Postal Service delays. Existing state law allows for ballot envelopes postmarked by Election Day to count if received within three days of the election. More than 11,600 ballots were received during the first three days after the 2020 — a number Republicans expect to drop in a midterm election year. Daniel said he believes his bill would not determine election results.

Caroline Fry, interim advocacy director of Democracy NC, a prominent voting rights group, told lawmakers she feels the bill comes as the latest effort in a "national strategy to silence voters, particularly Black voters.”

Democrats dislike the plan, as well as proposals the committee approved to have state elections officials collect citizenship data through the court system’s jury selection process and ban private money from being used to support election operations.

“We have got to come together, and this is not the way to do it," said Democratic Rep. Billy Richardson of Cumberland County. "I hope we don’t pass this, and I hope we don’t pass the rest of these bills. I’d just wish we’d come together, and this is not helping.”

Republicans are again seeking to require courts to share citizenship data with state elections officials if a potential juror says they are unable to participate because they are not U.S. residents. The move renews an effort that failed in 2019 when Cooper vetoed the plan. The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina believes the measure poses privacy concerns and could embolden anti-immigrant vigilantes.

Additionally, legislators are looking to pass a bill that would prevent private money from flowing to state and county elections boards. A $400 million donation from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, allowed county elections offices across the country to hire more poll workers, buy equipment to process mail-in ballot and purchase personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But the grants drew the ire of conservative lawmakers across the United States who questioned the motives of wealthy, liberal-leaning individuals, prompting several GOP-controlled states to enact bans on such contributions.

“When partisan groups are sending private dollars to counties that otherwise exclusively run elections, it erodes the confidence in the outcome," said Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus.

Senate Republicans voted in June along party lines to approve the measures limiting mail-in ballot counting and banning private money to fund election operations. The proposals now head to the House floor, as does the House bill requiring courts share citizenship information to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

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Bryan Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.