Senate Republicans approved a bill Wednesday evening that shortens the deadline for mail-in ballots to arrive at county elections offices because, in part, they are mad at Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein and the state Board of Elections executive director.
It all goes back to a lawsuit settlement last September that included an agreement to count ballots that arrived up to nine days after Election Day 2020. There was worry back then about slow mail delivery.
Republicans are angry that Stein’s office and the state elections board agreed to extend the post-Election Day deadline for absentee ballots from three days to nine, arguing that they usurped the legislature’s power.
Under a law that’s been around for more than a decade, it’s okay for ballots that are postmarked by Election Day to arrive up to three days later and still count.
Under Senate bill 326, mail-in ballots that arrive after Election Day will no longer count.
“This is to make it crystal clear to our Attorney General, to our Board of Elections, that the Election Day deadline is Election Day, and it’s not to play around with and change at will,” said Sen. Warren Daniel, a Republican representing Burke, Avery, and Caldwell counties.
Sen. Toby Fitch, a Democrat representing Halifax, Edgecombe, and Wilson counties, asked why the bill punishes voters if the target is the Attorney General.
The Senate earlier this session passed a bill that would limit the Attorney General’s ability to settle lawsuits when legislative leaders are named parties, which Daniel mentioned.
He also said that setting the absentee ballot deadline for Election Day is “best practice” and will allow races to be called sooner.
The bill shortening the deadline was part of a package of bills dealing with elections that the Senate approved Wednesday night.
Sen. Paul Newton, a Republican representing Cabarrus and Union counties, said the election issues were originally wrapped up in one bill, but were separated in to three in the hope that two would get bipartisan support.
That didn’t happen. All three bills passed with only Republican votes. The bills now go to the House for consideration.
Democrats and advocacy groups stepped up criticism of the bills in news conferences this week. Most of the focus was on the shortened absentee ballot deadline.
Sen. Dan Blue, the chamber’s Democratic leader, said at a news conference Tuesday morning that Republicans want to pass new restrictions on absentee ballots because Democrats voted by mail in greater numbers last fall.
Blue, who represents a Wake County district, linked the proposed change to gerrymandering and a sweeping 2013 election law written by Republicans that a federal court threw out in 2016, saying it targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.”
In the past, absentee ballot results in North Carolina tended to favor Republican candidates. Democrats had advantages in in-person early voting.
That changed last year. According to an analysis by political scientist Chris Cooper, Republican Donald Trump won 30% of mail-in ballots last year, a sharp drop from the 59% he won in 2016. Trump won 52% of early votes in 2020, up from 46% in 2016, Cooper found.
“The trends are changing, and now Democrats outpace Republicans in mail-in ballot return,” Blue said. “So in typical fashion, Republicans are attacking your right to vote by mail, Democrat or Republican, or unaffiliated.”
Senate Bill 724 would change online voter registration and also states the legislature’s intent to fund a program that would get photo identification for people who don’t have it. Republicans for years have pushed for voter photo ID, but the issue has faced a series of lawsuits and it still in court. The bill would also allow people who are visually impaired to vote using an online portal.
Senate Bill 725 would prohibit the State Board of Elections and county elections boards from taking grant money to help run elections. The State Board and a number of counties received grants from a group funded by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. Conservative commentators criticized the grants and states have started passing laws to prevent elections officials from taking the money.
The State Board used the grant money for mailers about voting in the pandemic, single-use pens, and to pay bonuses to people who worked the polls during the one-stop voting period. The State Board said in an email earlier this year that the legislature provided bonuses for people who worked on Election Day, but none for people who worked during early voting.