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N.C. Senate Democrats, civil right advocates worry bills claiming to expand voting rights do the exact opposite

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North Carolina senators on the Redistricting and Elections Committee disagreed on steps to protect the rights of voters in a heated committee hearing on Wednesday. The disagreement revolved around the discussion of three bills — all of which essentially echo an earlier version of the “Election Integrity Act” (Senate Bill 326) a Republican proposal that the progressive  Brennan Center for Justice classified as one “restricting voting access.” The three bills (a revised version of SB 326, along with Senate Bills 724 and 725) were sponsored by the three co-chairs of the committee, Sens. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, Ralph Hise, R-Madison and Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus. All three won approval and were referred to the Senate Rules Committee.

SB 326: Eliminating the grace period for absentee ballot receipts after Election Day

SB 326 was simplified to focus on moving up deadlines for absentee ballots. It would make 5:00 pm on the day of the election the final deadline for the receipt of mailed ballots during any statewide primary, general election and county bond elections. Lawmakers extended the deadline last year by three days for ballots postmarked by Election Day — a number that was later extended to nine in response to a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups.

”We don’t need to rehash again in this committee the collusive settlement entered by Attorney General Stein and director Brinson Bell that subverted state law to extend the absentee ballot deadline from three days after Election Day to nine days after Election Day,“ Daniel said the settlement undermined the confidence in the election system.

Heather Murphy, an Air Force veteran spoke against the bill, saying the bill poses a threat to legally cast ballots that arrive late because of delays. “That’s a big problem for veterans like me as one in five military voters in North Carolina cast a ballot by mail in the 2020 general election,” Murphy said.

Bob Philips, the executive director of Common Cause NC, a grassroots organization said in a press release: “There is absolutely no evidence that this change is needed. It would simply hurt North Carolina voters, especially those in rural communities, who follow the rules but could have their ballot unfairly invalidated because of a delay in mail delivery. We call on legislators to reject Senate Bill 326.”

While mailed ballots would need to be received by 5:00 pm on Election Day, the new version would do away with the requirement that  absentee ballot requests be submitted seven days before the election. Daniel said the bill now would give voters 53 days to request an absentee ballot and 17 to vote early in person.

Modifications to the bill adopted in the committee would also require county boards of elections to report more data to the State Board of Elections. That includes the number of total absentee ballots, as well outstanding and spoiled ones. The State Board of Elections would in turn be required to release such reports.

Sen. Paul Newton presents voting-related bills at the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee on June 9, 2021

SB 725: Prohibiting outside grants for boards of elections

Entitled “Prohibit Private Money in Elections Admin.”, SB 725 would ban the state and county boards of elections and the county boards of commissioners from accepting private donations for election administration.

“Let’s nip this idea that private organizations can selectively fund within counties what they care about, what aligns with maybe their ideology,” Newton said.

Andy Jackson, a representative of the conservative John Locke Foundation spoke in support of the bill. He said the main outside funding comes from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a group founded by members of voter outreach group Organizing Institute, which mainly received money from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Pricilla Chan.

“Thirty-three counties that the organization gave funds backed Democrat Cal Cunningham, 52.7% to 47.3% while the other 67 counties that did not receive that funding, supporting Republican Tom Tillis 53.6% to 46.4%,” Jackson said.

Similar bills have been passed in other states such as Georgia and Arizona, according to a report by The Hill, which also stated that a total of $350 million to the Center for Tech and Civic Life funded 2,500 county and city election officials.

Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg, said the state legislature has failed to support elections adequately in the 2020 response during the pandemic, harming voters’ access to the ballot.

“I don’t understand why we just said, well, we’ll leave it up to counties to figure it out and luckily these groups stepped in,” Marcus said.

SB 724: “Expand Access to Voter ID & Voting”

Newton described SB 724 as “all about expanding voter access in North Carolina.” The bill proposes three key measures. First, it would improve accessibility for visually-impaired votes when using the online portal to vote. Second, it would create a program that would provide photo IDs for the purpose of voting for lack of an alternative existing ID. Third, it would mandate the State Board of Elections to overhaul their website to allow voter registration online. Currently, the service is offered by the DMV.

Marcus raised doubts about whether the process will be duplicative and whether the SBOE has the technology to deliver what the bill calls for.

Newton did not directly address her concern. Instead, he said, “We’ve been working with the Board of Elections; We’ve taken every change they’ve asked to make on this provision, or any other provision.”

Kelly Tornow, a state board of elections legislative liaison said during public comment at the hearing that she is unclear about the implementation of the bill.

Failure to transfer the DMV data to the SBOE website could result in verification errors and disenfranchisement, a statement from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice said. The voting rights advocacy group noted that only current and valid licenses could be used for the proposed online voter registration system under the bill’s proposal, while the current DMV site still accepts inactive licenses.

The group North Carolina Asian Americans Together issued a highly critical statement in which it called SB 724 “a litigation strategy cloaked in a bill without actually responding to voter access needs.” It noted that the bill would likely cause errors and confusion, as the Voter ID law passed in 2018 is still been litigated in state and federal court, facing Constitutional challenges that it discriminates against communities of color.

“Voter ID may also discourage Asian Americans from voting when forced to show identification because they look “too foreign” or because their English is limited,” the statement noted.

The group is opposed to all three bills. “These bills that legislators claim will preserve the integrity of elections will instead disenfranchise Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities as well as Asian American voters,” the statement read.

[Note: This story was updated to include a statement on SB 724 from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.]
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