by Jordan Wilkie, Carolina Public Press –
The outbreak of COVID-19 is making it more difficult and more expensive to run elections.
The N.C. House passed a bipartisan election bill on Thursday, May 28, 2020 that would provide the state with money needed to access much larger federal funds. The bill would also change state law to make it easier to vote by mail and for election officials to staff polling places, moves that would make running elections during the pandemic easier.
However, the bill does not provide the full scope of relief sought by the state Board of Elections, county elections directors or democracy watchers.
“Neither party got everything they wanted,” said Rep. Allison Dahle, D-Wake, who was one of the bill’s sponsors.
“We worked together to find solutions that both sides of the aisle were comfortable with. Is it perfect? No. Is it what we dreamed of? No. Is it better for the people of North Carolina? Yes.”
House Bill 1169 passed with an overwhelming majority, 116-3, even as some Democrats grumbled that it did not make voting by mail easy enough and that the bill included unnecessary provisions. The bill will now be sent to the state Senate, where it is expected to be taken up quickly.
In an April 22 letter to the General Assembly, state Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell said elections officials needed the money by June 15 at the latest to make all the necessary purchases for the November election, not to mention the second primary election in June. The second primary affects the southwestern part of the state in Congressional District 11, plus a local election in Columbus County. She asked the legislature to act during the special session that began April 28.
Dahle said lawmakers have been working on this bill for a month and a half. To speed up the process, she said, if there were any requests that members of the House or Senate were not comfortable with, they just took that piece out.
The state really needed the federal money, Dahle said. To get those funds, a combined $22.7 million from the Help America Vote Act and the CARES Act, the state needs to provide almost $4.5 million in matching funds.
The money will be used to make security improvements for the election and to cover COVID-19-related costs, such as printing and postage for a predicted spike in by-mail ballot demand and personal protective equipment at the polls.
An investigation by the NC Watchdog Reporting Network, of which CPP is a member, shows that counties would be unlikely to afford the changes to elections brought on by COVID-19 without this additional support.
Parties Compromise to Pass Bill
When sponsors of this bill, Reps. Holly Grange, R-New Hanover, and Dahle, spoke about the bill, they stressed its bipartisan nature.
“This is a compromise bill of 100, really 120 people,” Dahl said. “Even though there were only four (sponsors), we still had our caucuses that we talked to and went back and forth with.”
Beyond the state’s partial match required to access federal funding, the election bill would make several temporary changes that would expire at the end of the year and a few permanent changes.
The House bill would temporarily lower the witness requirement on absentee by-mail ballots from two adult witnesses to one. Since the majority of households in North Carolina have fewer than three adults — one to vote, two to witness — the current requirement was seen as a burden during a pandemic.
At the same time, the bill would make it easier for voters to request absentee by-mail ballots. If this bill is passed by the Senate and signed into law, ballot requests could be submitted by email or fax, in addition to by mail or in person. The state has allocated $424,000 for the state to create an online portal for absentee ballot requests.
Under the bill, voters would also be able to track their ballots by way of a bar code or unique identifier associated with the ballot, both when their county’s board of elections mails it out and when they mail ballots back.
County boards of elections would have increased flexibility in hiring poll workers. Until the end of the year, only one poll worker per precinct would need to be from that precinct, while others could be recruited from across the county.
Since poll workers in North Carolina are, on average, over 65 years old and are therefore more vulnerable to serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19, counties are expecting to struggle to retain and recruit poll workers.
The bill also clarifies how multipartisan assistance teams operate during a pandemic. These teams usually assist voters in residential care homes, but there is currently an executive order banning visitors to these centers to limit the spread of COVID-19 to vulnerable populations. Under the bill, the state Board of Elections would work with the Department of Health and Human Services to create a plan whereby the teams can work safely “within hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, assisted living or other congregate living situations.”