North Carolina legislators – offering what amounts to a snappy salute in the direction of Mar-a-Lago – are well on their way toward fixing an election law that’s anything but broken.
If they succeed, they will have managed to inject a dose of inconvenience and uncertainty into the state’s system of mail-in absentee voting, which proved so popular last fall as an alternative to in-person voting during the pandemic.
Mail-in voting, Tar Heel style, worked just fine despite a record turnout. But that hasn’t stopped our former president from complaining about any voting regime that allows ballots received after Election Day to be counted, even if they were provably mailed by an Election Day deadline.
It’s part of Donald Trump’s ongoing grand exercise in cynical disinformation intended to convince Americans that he defeated Joe Biden, facts to the contrary – an exercise that plainly spurred the violent Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters.
For the past dozen years, an otherwise eligible North Carolinian who wanted to vote by mail has had until Election Day proper to send in his or her ballot. It has to be postmarked to show that it was cast no later than that day. To be counted, it must be received by the voter’s county elections board within three days afterward.
In essence, that has put absentee voters on the same footing as those who go to the polls in person. People in both categories could wait until Election Day to finalize their choices and fill out their ballots – a voter-friendly accommodation that in the aggregate helps boost the quality of those chosen.
There was one notable exception to that process. Last year, with absentee ballot volumes soaring off the charts at the same time mail deliveries were bogging down because of ill-conceived and ill-timed cost-cutting efforts by the Postal Service, the deadline for receipt was stretched to nine days after Election Day.
That drove Republican legislators up the wall. They claimed the State Board of Elections had usurped legislative prerogatives in making the change, even though a court challenge along those lines flopped. Three state senators – Ralph Hise of Spruce Pine, Paul Newton of Mount Pleasant and Warren Daniel of Morganton – began pushing to strip away the post-election grace period entirely.
False on fraud
Thus emerged Senate Bill 326, now dubbed the Election Day Integrity Act. The bill was approved by Senate elections and rules committees on June 9 and June 10, respectively. It has a clear path forward with support from the full chamber’s Republican majority. The larger picture: Donald Trump claims, with zero justification, that post-Election Day ballot counting is a recipe for fraud. His allies then jump to abolish a provision that helps all voters, of whichever party or none, and that has functioned apparently without a hitch.
Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus of Charlotte unloosed one of several volleys of criticism directed at the bill during committee proceedings. She told the elections panel it would force absentee voters to guess when their ballots would have to be mailed so they would be counted, leaving them “at the mercy of the U.S. Postal Service.” Which, of course, has been dogged by suspicion that delivery slowdowns were engineered by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, the big-time Trump campaign donor from Greensboro.
Although bill sponsors maintained that voters would adjust to the new requirement, they failed to acknowledge that in 2020, plenty of valid ballots came in after Election Day. That suggests many voters took advantage of all the available time, perhaps to decide on their preferred candidates (Trump and Biden were at the top of a very long ballot). The upshot of making the mailed-ballot option clunkier and less reliable: as Marcus put it, “Bipartisan disenfranchisement.”
Sen. Daniel framed the bill as an effort to boost voters’ confidence that election results are fairly and honestly recorded. “Dragging out the process breeds distrust,” he said, asserting that 28 states already require mailed absentee ballots to be received no later than Election Day.
Of course that means North Carolina, with its grace period, already has plenty of company – and far better for our state to encourage more voting rather than less, even if that runs afoul of Trump’s bogus “stolen election” theory.
At the Rules Committee meeting – where members of the public at least were given a fair chance to comment, in contrast to the bum’s rush they got from Sen. Hise at the Elections Committee session a day earlier – it was Caroline Fry of Democracy North Carolina who most conspicuously spoke truth to power.
Fry noted that if the rule proposed under S.B. 326 had been in effect last fall, more than 11,000 ballots received after Election Day would have been disqualified. Okay, some of those voters would adapt to different rules. But some portion of them either wouldn’t adapt or couldn’t.
Sending a message
“Voters have to know when it’s too late to mail their ballots,” Fry said, noting that in any case results aren’t certified until 10 days after the election. (Military and civilian overseas ballots will continue to be accepted until that point, so not until then can results be declared final.) “This is a messaging bill,” she said, “intended to reinforce President Trump’s notion that the election was stolen.” Who’d have thunk it?
When it first surfaced, S.B. 326 included other dubious provisions. One would have barred the state and counties from accepting funds from private donors to support voting operations. Another would have continued Republican efforts to defend the indefensible, namely their insistence on photo ID for voters as a panacea against fraud that is so rare as to scarcely exist. It would have committed the State Board of Elections to identifying persons lacking such IDs and using a “mobile component” to bring IDs to them.
By the time the Senate committees got down to business, those objectives had been split off into separate bills. Each was cleared for floor action, despite credible criticism.
Donations helped last fall’s voting take place smoothly and without any reported instances of COVID-19 being contracted either by election officials or by voters themselves. For example, the money helped pay for extra poll workers and for equipment such as single-use pens. If there was a downside, it existed only in the minds of those who resented the fact that so many voters were able to vote safely. So S.B. 725 represents a solution in search of a problem.
The state’s voter ID law remains in limbo, undergoing court challenges. But even if the law is allowed to take effect, the proposal in S.B. 724 – promoted especially by Sen. Newton – seems half-baked.
It fails to gauge the outreach program’s cost while relying on budget-writers to provide the necessary funds. It fails to define what sort of ID would be provided and who would be expected to honor it. And it fails to explain how those residents – or registered voters? – lacking sufficient ID would be identified and contacted in the first place. This is a provision meant to serve as a fig leaf for a requirement that remains fundamentally discriminatory in its impact.
At the Rules Committee meeting, Sen. Jay Chaudhuri of Raleigh led the Democrats’ questioning. As he probed for a legitimate rationale for S.B. 326, Chaudhuri asked Sen. Daniel whether – in light of the grace period for absentee ballot receipt – the accuracy of election results as reported last fall was in dispute.
Daniel’s non-answer, involving the importance of reporting results in a timely fashion – told us all we needed to know. There was no dispute over the results’ accuracy, including Trump’s win here over Biden – and of course all valid votes were cast by Election Day.
What could hardly be disputed is that Republican senators are anxious to align with the defeated and disgraced ex-president who couldn’t win an election fairly and squarely and whose recourse is to try to convince us that his opponents cheated. The danger embedded in that horribly disingenuous argument should be plain for all to see.
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.