COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News, Voting

COVID-19 bipartisan elections bill now moving to Senate for approval

(Photo by Melissa Boughton)

North Carolina House members voted 116-3 today to pass a bipartisan COVID-19 elections bill.

All three “no” votes on House Bill 1169 came from Democratic representatives. The roll call transcript of the votes is not yet posted online, but Rep. Amos Quick III (D-Guilford), Rep. Derwin Montgomery (D-Forsyth) and Rep. Raymond Smith Jr. (D-Sampson, Wayne) appeared to vote “no” via the roll call board posted on social media.

HB 1169 is intended to make the 2020 election more accessible to voters and safer for those who choose to cast a ballot in person. The main features of the measure include:

  • altering the requirements for absentee, voting-by-mail so that only one witness would be required, although the witness would now be required to provide their printed name and address;
  • allowing poll workers to staff voting sites outside their own precinct;
  • allowing voters to request blank absentee ballots by mail, email, fax or online portal.

The bill also allocates funding to the state and county boards of elections to help them administer the election amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some Democrats and voting rights advocates have criticized the bill for not going far enough to protect the voting rights, particularly for people of color, who are bearing the greatest burden from COVID-19 and who are the most disenfranchised when it comes to voting in North Carolina.

A major sticking point in the measure for House Democrats, even those who voted in favor of the bill, was a provision that would add an acceptable voter photo ID in the event a state and federal court rescind their preliminary injunctions halting the potentially discriminatory law.

Rep. Zack Hawkins (D-Durham) voted in favor of HB 1169 but also scolded his colleagues during the floor discussion for injecting voter ID into a bill that was supposed to be “above board” to help North Carolinians in a crisis.

Other Democratic members acknowledged the measure was good, despite failing to address several requests from the State Board of Elections. Those included prepaid postage for absentee by-mail ballots and the declaration of Election Day as a holiday to allow more people to participate.

“Is it perfect? No,” said Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake), who was one of the primary sponsors of the bill. “Is it everything we dreamed of? No. Is it better for the people of North Carolina? Yes.”

The bill will now move to the Senate for approval. There are still at least three lawsuits in state and federal courts pending over North Carolina’s absentee ballot accessibility.

Courts & the Law, COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News, Voting

Voting rights advocates vow to keep fighting for fair, accessible, just election

(Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Questions about what the upcoming election will look like in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic have been circulating for weeks in North Carolina.

House lawmakers introduced a bipartisan measure to address some concerns about accessibility to the ballot, but later the same day, a number of voting rights organizations filed a federal lawsuit challenging several of the state’s registration and voting requirements, including the witness requirement for absentee ballot signatures, limited registration period for new voters, and the lack of safe accommodations for in-person polling places.

Advocates have praised the measure, House Bill 1169, but they’ve also pointed to issues it doesn’t address, like prepaid postage for by-mail absentee ballots and contactless drop boxes where ballots could be dropped off.

Tomas Lopez, executive director of Democracy NC also said lawmakers haven’t been able to work in a bipartisan fashion on other important democratic issues so voters have to be vigilant. “None of us are here calling for an all-mail election,” he said, adding that there still needed to be measures in place to protect a system that was not built for a surge of absentee ballots.

Lopez and other advocates representing more than 30 national and local civil and voting rights and social justice organizations held a virtual press conference to preview a virtual day of action tomorrow. It’s expected to serve as a unify and mobilize people to assert that they will fight “from now until November” for a just democracy.

House lawmakers will discuss HB 1169 at a House Elections and Ethics Law Committee at 9 a.m. Wednesday. The virtual day of action events begin at 2 p.m.

The #ProtectOurVoteNC Virtual Day of Action corresponds with the continuation of the General Assembly’s short session when legislators are making crucial decisions that could shape the state’s 2020 elections. Participating organizations are fighting barriers to voting imposed by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, as well those who are using a deadly pandemic for political gain and profits.

“Even through our grief, our anger, our sorrow and pain, and yes, our fears, we will stay in covenant with our long history of fighting for a representative democracy that lives up the hopes of our ancestors and ambitions of children’s greatest dreams,” said the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman. “Our voice matters; our votes matter; our lives matter.”

“North Carolina is a testing ground for this nation,” Spearman said. “The fight over our democracy has dominated cycles and cycles of news coverage. We have won tremendous victories against bold, unapologetic efforts to silence and suppress the voices of Black voters, LatinX, the poor, women, immigrants and workers. Tomorrow we’re calling on the North Carolina General Assembly to turn the page on that chapter and commit to making North Carolina a laboratory for making our democracy the most accessible in this nation, the most free, the most fair, the most just, the most safe.”

Democracy North Carolina, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and six individual voters filed the federal lawsuit late Friday. They are represented by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Fair Elections Center and pro bono counsel from law firm WilmerHale in Washington, D.C. Read the full lawsuit below.



Complaint LWV Dem NC (Text)

COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News, Voting

Bipartisan elections bill filed; would quell some voter access concerns amid COVID-19

The bipartisan election bill North Carolinians have been waiting weeks to see is finally here.

House lawmakers filed House Bill 1169 this morning, and it contains a lot of the measures the State Board of Elections and voting rights advocates have asked for to prepare for conducting an election in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill reduces the requirement for absentee mail-in ballots from two witnesses to one; it gives counties greater flexibility in where they assign poll workers; it allows voters to submit an absentee ballot request form via email, online portal, fax, mail or in-person (currently voters can submit an absentee ballot request form only by mail or in person); it allocates matching funds to receive federal dollars made available through the CARES Act and directs money to counties for preparation of election administration during the pandemic.

“This bill is a positive step toward ensuring every eligible North Carolina voter is able to safely and securely cast a ballot in this year’s elections,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC. “We applaud members on both sides of the aisle for this bipartisan effort. As the bill makes its way through each legislative chamber, we urge lawmakers to be responsive to suggestions from election experts and the public. Ultimately, it is crucial that we work together to fully prepare our state to conduct an election that is free and fair for all.”

Lawmakers are set to discuss the bill at a House Elections and Ethics Law Committee at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Primary sponsors of House Bill 1169 include Rep. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover) and Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell), who are both co-chairs of the Committee that will meet next week. Committee members Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake) and Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) are also sponsors of the measure.

There are at least two lawsuits pending to try and force the state to make elections more accessible in North Carolina. HB 1169, if passed, would satisfy most of the requests that plaintiffs have made in those suits.

The bill would prohibit the State Board of Elections from moving to an all mail election or sending ballots to North Carolinians who didn’t request them. It should be noted, though, that neither the Board or voting rights advocates ever asked for an all mail election.

House Speaker Tim Moore commended lawmakers in a Friday news release for their work on the measure.

“Voters deserve consensus bipartisan efforts to improve our elections systems, and this General Assembly will provide the necessary funding and reforms to effectively administer elections in the 2020 cycle,” he said.

Courts & the Law, COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News, Voting

Voting rights advocates sue over ExpressVote machines; want hand-marked paper ballots for upcoming election

COVID-19 isn’t slowing down voting rights advocates in North Carolina; today they filed a lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court challenging a new voting system that’s used in 21 counties, including Mecklenburg.

The 31-page lawsuit alleges the new system, called ExpressVote, is vulnerable to security threats, and its results are unverifiable by voters because it uses a barcode for tabulation; use of the system violates the North Carolina Constitution’s guarantees of free and fair elections and the equal protection of the law.

“The ExpressVote is an insecure, unreliable, unverifiable and unsafe machine that threatens the integrity of North Carolina’s elections,” said the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, President of the North Carolina NAACP. “The new electronic system converts voters’ votes and ballots into undecipherable barcodes, forcing voters to cast a vote they cannot read. These North Carolina counties must move to hand-marked paper ballots to restore voters’ trust in the integrity of our elections.”

The NC NAACP and several voters filed the lawsuit, and they are represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Free Speech For People and the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP.

They also allege in the lawsuit that the new system, implemented ahead of the election this fall, is particularly perilous during the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus can be spread through contact with the touchscreen computer or other parts of the machine.

Election Systems & Software, the company which manufactures and markets the ExpressVote machines, has said there are remedial steps which election officials can take to mitigate threat of the virus, such as cleaning the machines after contact by each voter. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, however, said those suggested steps are time-consuming, difficult and costly, and they can lead to long lines at polling places.

Such cleaning can also damage the ExpressVote machines and is ineffective in eliminating the coronavirus if improperly done, the said.

John Powers, counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said during a press call Wednesday that the collective consciousness of voting rights advocates have changed in the wake of COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean hackers and hostile nation states are taking a day off.

“The same threats that existed before the panic are still there right now,” he said. “As voting rights advocates, we need to walk and chew gum at the same time in terms of addressing voter access concerns … but we also need to make sure we protect our election systems and don’t take our eye off the ball as the critical 2020 election approaches.”

The defendants in the case include the North Carolina State Board of Elections and the county boards of elections in Alamance, Ashe, Buncombe, Burke, Cherokee, Davie, Davidson, Forsyth, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Lenoir, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Pender, Perquimans, Polk, Rutherford, Surry, Transylvania and Warren counties. Each of those areas use some the ExpressVote machines in some capacity;, whether it’s the main voting machine or used for early voting.

The ExpressVote barcodes can be miscoded or hacked without detection, according to the lawsuit. Its defects and security flaws create the risk that voters in Mecklenburg County and several other North Carolina counties will have their votes cancelled or cast for the wrong candidate.

The lawsuit details problems that have already occurred with the machine. During North Carolina’s March 2020 primary election, ExpressVote machines were left in improper modes, used for types of voting for which the machines had not been authorized, and were responsible for improperly tabulating votes in at least one county.

“The right to vote means the right to have one’s own intended choices recorded and counted, not the choices of a computer running an insecure, unreliable software,” said Courtney Hostetler, Counsel at Free Speech For People.

“Voters who are required to use the ExpressVote voting machine aren’t just losing out on the right to vote—they’re also exposing themselves to a hard-to-disinfect touchscreen that may have been touched by hundreds of voters carrying a deadly virus that can live on surfaces for days. Only hand-marked paper ballots can guarantee North Carolinians a secure, reliable, and safe election.”

Read the full lawsuit below.



NC Voting Machine Complaint FINAL (Text)