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Bipartisan elections bill wins committee approval, heads to state House floor

Envelope containing voting ballot papers being sent by mail for absentee voting. (Getty Images/Backyard Production)

North Carolina House lawmakers will consider an elections bill today that would provide temporary funding and set up new election protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic, but voting rights advocates say it doesn’t go far enough.

Republican and Democratic members from two House committees, Elections and Ethics Law and Rules, approved House Bill 1169 [2] yesterday after brief discussions about what the measure would mean for North Carolinians in the fall election.

“This legislation doesn’t make wholesale revisions to our elections laws, but instead it addresses the immediate concerns and it funds our existing system so that they can operate under our current pandemic situation,” said Rep. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover), a primary sponsor of the bill.

She told both committees that currently, about 95% of North Carolinians choose to vote in person and the other 5%  vote absentee. But the percentage of absentee voters is expected to rise significantly if the threat of COVID-19 still looms.

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:

The measure also provides a $2.1 million match to receive nearly $11 million in federal aid from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. It appropriates $424,000 to the State Board of Elections to establish an online portal for absentee ballot requests and mandates the state board to allocate other funds to county boards of elections based on tier status. Tier 1 counties are the 40 most economically distressed; Tier 2 are the next 40 counties in terms of economic health. Tier 3 counties are the least distressed.

The state board could allocate any leftover funds to counties on a per-registered-voter basis for expenses eligible under the CARES Act. HB 1169 also provides a match for federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds, which would be used to help with election security and technology.

There was little back-and-forth about the bill in the House Elections and Ethics Committee. Rep. Elmer Floyd (D-Cumberland) said he was concerned about reducing the number of witnesses on absentee ballots and thought it should stay at two.

Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) responded to his concerns and said he believed the new requirement in the bill for one signature was actually stronger than the requirement for two, because it also requires a printed name and address, whereas the prior requirement only needed “two scribbles on a piece of paper.”

Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett)

Lewis went on to say the General Assembly might decide the witness requirement in HB 1169 amounts to better public policy and adopt it for future elections. “This bill is the old saying that nobody got everything they wanted and nobody got everything they wanted, exactly,” Lewis said.

He encouraged all committee members and the public to look at what HB 1169 tries to accomplish – allowing more people to access the ballot without compromising their health.

Ultimately, the committee adopted an amendment that was mostly technical in nature and then passed the entire measure as amended unanimously.

There was more discussion in the House Rules Committee as some Republicans questioned whether COVID-19 would still be a concern by November; some Democrats raised other matters the bill does not address.

House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson (D-Wake) asked about a provision in the bill that prevents the state board from sending blank absentee forms to voters who didn’t request one. He asked whether county boards of elections could send  blank forms and was told the bill didn’t speak to that.

Rep. Becky Carney (D-Mecklenburg) asked why the bill excluded a provision for prepaid postage for absentee ballots. Grange responded that it wasn’t “feasible.” The prepaid postage issue has been a sticking point for voting rights advocates who continue to argue for stronger protections than what’s in HB 1169. The State Board of Elections also asked lawmakers to include prepaid postage.

The bill passed out of the committee 18-2, with Representatives James Boles (R-Moore) and Dana Bumgardner (R-Gaston) the two naysayers.

Democracy North Carolina, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and six individual voters filed a federal lawsuit last week shortly after HB 1169 was released. The lawsuit — the third over absentee ballots in the state — challenges several of North Carolina’s registration and voting requirements. These include the witness requirement for absentee ballot signatures, the limited registration period for new voters, and lack of safe accommodations for in-person polling places.

“The pandemic has already decimated voter registration rates and third-party voter registration initiatives, and makes it impossible for voters to comply safely with certain requirements for mail-in absentee voting, including the two-witness or notary requirement,” the lawsuit states. “In addition, election officials anticipate severe shortages of poll workers, who justifiably fear contracting the disease, resulting in fewer polling sites.”

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

Civil and voting rights groups and social justice organizations spent much of yesterday participating in a “virtual day of action” vowing to keep fighting for expanded voter access until Election Day.

In addition to prepaid postage, they’ve called on lawmakers to expand voting to people convicted of felonies, but who are still on parole. They also want the General Assembly to allow the state board to send absentee ballots to everyone of voting age in the state, to create an in-person “contactless” drop box for absentee ballots, and to implement even stronger in-person voting safety measures.

“It’s not going down like this,” said the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a keynote speaker at the virtual “#ProtectOurVoteNC Rally.” “What we are saying is that we demand that our votes be protected, and the bill that’s trying to be considered is not enough, [so] we demand our democratic brothers and sisters fight for more and we demand that our Republican adversaries know that anything they put up that’s not right, we will fight it in court with everything we have.”

The House session today convenes at noon, where it’s expected members will vote on HB 1169. An audio fed can be accessed by clicking here [5].