News: Quick Takes

Absentee voting priority for N.C. State Board of Elections

CJ photo by Don Carrington
CJ photo by Don Carrington

The State Board of Elections is gearing up for a surge in absentee-by-mail voting, due to COVID-19 concerns.

The board Thursday, March 26 issued several recommendations to the General Assembly in preparation for the 11th Congressional District runoff and the November general election. The recommendations mostly loosen requirements and increase options for absentee-by-mail voting. They also include suggestions on recruiting younger poll workers not at high risk for COVID-19.

The House Select Committee on COVID-19 meets 1 p.m. Tuesday.

“We believe the legislative recommendations released today would go a long way toward ensuring safe, accessible elections in 2020,” Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell says in a  statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with the General Assembly to respond to the unprecedented threat facing our elections system at this time.”

While the State Board issued the letter in response to COVID-19, it also recommended making many of the changes permanent “to ensure continuity and avoid voter confusion.”

The recommendations would allow ballot-request forms to be sent by fax and email, rather than the current options — in-person or mail delivery. The board asked for an online portal to expedite voters’ absentee ballot requests.

County boards could pre-fill voter’s information on an absentee request form, relieving voters who need help filling out the form from traveling to the county board office. The voter or a near relative would have to sign the form. 

Voters could include with their request form a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows the voter’s name and address, rather than either their driver’s license number or Social Security number. The board heard reports of voters lacking access to a driver’s license number or an inability to recall or access their Social Security number. The change would help senior citizens at risk of contracting COVID-19, the board said.

Prepaid postage decreases the need for a voter to leave their home for postage and decreases the incentive to give their ballot to someone else, the board said. The provision would help nursing home and group home facility residents minimize contact with other people.

Facility employees could temporarily assist voters with their ballots if there’s no other way for them to receive assistance, the board suggested. Such assistance is now a felony.

Absentee ballot envelopes would require only one witness, instead of two witnesses or a notary. The board suggested eliminating the witness requirement.

The recommendations would make it easier for students to work at the polls. The average age for a North Carolina poll-worker is 70, five years above the age considered “high-risk” for COVID-19. Now, students must be 17 years old and can serve only as precinct assistants. The suggested rule would allow high school juniors or seniors — who are at least 16 — to serve in higher precinct positions.

Election day would become a state holiday, expanding the potential number of students, teachers, and younger people who could help administer elections. Alternatively, the General Assembly could give paid leave to state or county employees and course credit to students who serve at the polls.

To help recruitment, the General Assembly could increase pay for poll workers above the current $7.25-per-hour minimum wage, the board suggested.

The board also asked the state to make the 20% funding match authorized in 2019 to bring in federal election security funds. This money would help fend off cyber attacks, phishing attempts, and scams, which tend to increase during times of crisis, the board said. The money would also help buy cleaning supplies and protective masks for staff and poll-workers, as well as resources for processing mail ballots.