Republicans aim to shorten absentee ballot deadlines, end private donations for elections

Legislators started their discussion of an elections bill that would prevent counting of mail-in ballots that arrive after Election Day.

Republicans are angry about the lawsuit settlement last fall that allowed mail-in absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day, Nov. 3,  to be counted as long as they arrived by Nov. 12.

Current law allows ballots that arrive up to three days after Election Day to be counted.

Senate Bill 326 would get rid of any cushion that allows for delayed postal deliveries or for ballots mailed on Election Day.

The bill would set a deadline of the second Tuesday before an election for absentee ballot requests.

“We’re receiving ballots after the election date,” said Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican. “That creates concerns in the voters’ minds.”

Democrats on the Senate committee pressed Newton on Wednesday for a postmark date by which voters could mail their ballots and still have them counted.

They said with postal delays, ballots could be mailed far ahead of Election Day and still not count if they arrive at county elections board offices late.

“The bill doesn’t provide a deadline for when a voter needs to put a ballot in the mail,” said Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat.

“Our current law is clear about what the deadline is,” she said. “This bill leaves it completely unknown.”

Senators talked about the bill, but did not vote on it.

The bill also prohibits the State Board of Elections and county boards from accepting private grants.

The state Elections Board received grants from the Center for Tech & Civic Life for elections administration. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, gave the Chicago-based nonprofit $400 million last year, the Washington Post reported. Jurisdictions throughout the country applied for and received money.  Elections officials needed it because the federal government did not provide enough funding to run elections in the pandemic, according to NPR. The grants stirred conservative opposition even before the election, The New York Times reported. Arizona is also working on a bill to block private donations for elections, NPR reported.

The State Board of Elections received $1 million from the Center for Tech & Civic Life for 6 million single-use pens it bought and distributed to counties for use at election sites.

It received $1.4 million for election communications – one mailer had instructions on where to return mail absentee ballots and the other had information on voting safely in person.

“Without the $1,410,000 grant, our communication with voters would have been limited to the NC Judicial Guide, social media, and press releases, as no additional funds were appropriated or authorized for advertising or marketing efforts regarding absentee by mail voting or the safety measures in place for in-person voting,” State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell said in a January memo.

The State Board also received nearly $2.3 million for bonuses for workers at one-stop early voting sites, according to an email from the State Board. The legislature appropriated $100 bonuses for people who worked on Election Day, but no bonuses for one-stop early voting workers, the email said. One-stop voting is the state’s most popular voting method “so those workers faced as much risk or greater risk as Election Day workers,” the email said. The money was divided among about 10,000 people who worked during early voting. Some worked the entire 17 days, and others a day or two. They received bonuses of $19.56 for each day they worked, the email said.

Twenty-seven North Carolina counties applied for and received grants,  according to the Center for Tech & Civic Life website.

The USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy gave elections grants to 10 North Carolina counties, according to its website.

The government should pay for elections, not private donors, Newton said, because the private money creates an appearance of impropriety.

“Elections should not be brought to you by Facebook,” Newton said. “We have ample money to fund a solid elections process.”

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