NC Democrats push for common sense voting reforms

Say this much, at least, for those legislators who favor making it easier, not harder, for North Carolinians to vote: They’re not ready to surrender to their vote-suppressing foes.

Even as key Republicans in the state Senate push changes to absentee voting rules whose main purpose would be to gum up the works, a group of House Democrats is pushing the other way.

Their bill entitled “Safeguarding Voting Rights,” introduced March 31 as House Bill 446, would protect popular voting options and in general encourage citizens to have their say at the polls.

It likely has zero chance of passage in a General Assembly controlled by Republicans in sync with the party’s national effort to downsize the electorate in its favor. But it shows the kind of steps that could be taken to strengthen our state’s voting procedures if maximum participation is the goal – while highlighting the divide between those who think maximum participation works in the public interest and those who don’t.

Here’s another point that needs to be made as Republicans from the former president on down continue to raise unfounded concerns about voter fraud. Of course the provisions of HB 446 would have to be carefully vetted to avoid any compromise of election security. But there’s no reason to think that shoring up access to the polls has to pave the way for cheating, or worse, that it’s meant to do so.

We should instead recall the high standard of efficiency and honesty that the state’s elections officials managed to meet even as turnout surged during the presidential election conducted last fall amid a deadly pandemic. For those worried about “election integrity,” now a favorite Republican cause, virus-era adjustments that helped people vote safely and securely should have drawn cheers, not jeers.

HB 446 so far has 32 sponsors, all Democrats – amounting to a majority of the party’s 51 House members (vs. 69 Republicans). Its primary sponsors are Reps. Marcia Morey of Durham, Allison Dahle of Raleigh, Kandie Smith of Greenville and Amos Quick III of Greensboro. Among the bill’s notable features, it would let absentee voters submit their ballots with the signature of only one witness rather than two.

The one-witness rule was approved by the legislature as a stop-gap response to the risks posed by in-person contact during the pandemic, but it now has lapsed. There’s ample reason to extend it, even if the COVID-19 threat continues to fade. It makes absentee voting more convenient with no evidence that it facilitates fraud. A huge increase in the number of absentee voters was a significant driver of 2020’s high turnout, and no doubt many of those voters would choose that method again if didn’t pose undue hassles.

Ballot ballet

The bill would affirm that as provided under current law, voters could apply for absentee ballots as late as the Tuesday before an election, and if a ballot was submitted by mail, it would count so long as it was received by the third day after Election Day.

However, it appears to drop the requirement that ballots also must be postmarked by Election Day. That presumably is in recognition that some mail these days isn’t postmarked at all. Yet the notion that ballots might be counted even if they were mailed after voting was supposed to have ended shapes up as a red flag.

Republican-sponsored Senate Bill 326, now pending, would advance the application deadline by a week and make Election Day the cutoff for receipt – essentially giving absentee voters the bum’s rush.

As Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus of Davidson pointed out during a March 31 committee hearing on the bill, campaigns can take unexpected turns during the closing days and voters may prefer to hold off on sending in their ballots until they have the full picture. Could they simply go vote in person on Election Day? Perhaps – but they’d lose the convenience factor of voting absentee. And for no good reason.

Last year saw improved methods for applying for an absentee ballot, including online. H.B. 446 would go farther. It would require the State Board of Elections, at least 90 days before an election, to “collaborate with county boards of elections to ensure every registered voter in the State receives by mail a request form for an absentee ballot.” Postage to return the form would be prepaid.

Choices for voters

Expect these ideas to be criticized as steps toward universal mail-in voting – blasted by some Republicans as ripe for fraud even though it’s used routinely and without problems in several Republican-leaning states. In fact there’s no suggestion in the House bill that in-person voting would or should be sidetracked. So long as the state can afford it, which it can, a robust menu of voting options remains the way to go.

Here are some of HB 446’s other major provisions:

  • At DMV offices and certain other agencies interacting with the public, customers not registered to vote would automatically be given the option of registering. Providing false information with fraudulent intent would be a felony.
  • A secure website would be created for eligible citizens with current driver’s or non-operator’s licenses to apply for voter registration, to report a change of name or address or to change their party affiliation.
  • County elections boards would have to provide at least one drop box for absentee ballots at their office during at least 15 days before an election. Ballots deposited in a drop box by the close of Election Day voting would be counted.
  • Voters would be given a chance to provide missing information on submitted absentee ballots. They’d have until two days before the election was certified to provide the necessary info. Ballots could be rejected because of signature mismatches only if the signatures differed “in multiple, significant, and obvious ways.”
  • Early voting sites on the last Saturday before the election, typically a day of heavy turnout, would be open until 5 p.m. rather than 3 p.m.
  • To promote voting and the staffing of polls, November Election Days in even-numbered years – i.e., for federal and state offices – would be holidays “for purposes of State employment.” (Expect questions as to whether the day off would apply to public school teachers, most of whose pay is derived from state funds.)
  • The State Board of Elections’ executive director could use emergency powers to adjust election schedules during a pandemic or health crisis declared by the president or governor. The reach of those powers gave rise to a bitter dispute last year over the deadline for receipt of absentee ballots, which was extended in a court settlement agreed to by Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell, a Democratic appointee. Republican legislators still complain that the arrangement infringed on their own authority, even though it turned out not to have harmed their cause. S.B. 326 is part of the fallout from that dispute.

Sponsors of the Senate bill, called the Election Integrity Act, say it’s needed to bolster public confidence that North Carolina’s elections are fair and square. As to why and how confidence has been shaken, sadly they have themselves and their own party, taking cues from the disgruntled ex-president, chiefly to blame. In a nutshell, there’s been no fraud that needs fixing.

What would be more helpful in shoring up the public’s confidence is to ensure that elections track the choices of as broad a cross-section of the citizenry as possible, mindful of rules that continue to keep the process honest.

That’s why the views of the N.C. Council of Churches and other voting rights advocates align with legislation in the spirit of H.B. 446. For a democracy truly to represent the public will, every eligible person’s voice must count – including the voices of those for whom casting a vote is the most important bit of civic leverage they have.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches, which first published this commentary.

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