News: Quick Takes

Election reform bill moving quickly through N.C. House

A bill forbidding all-mail elections passed unanimously Wednesday, May 27, out of the House Elections and Ethics Law Committee. It’s heading to the House Rules Committee.

House Bill 1169 eases some restrictions on absentee ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic, while also tightening oversight requirements and adding penalties for mail ballots cast illegally.

Lawmakers introduced the bill one day after the state Rules Review Commission rejected a request for emergency powers by the State Board of Elections. Republican leaders released statements blasting the board and questioning whether its motive was to move toward all-mail elections. 

H.B. 1169 would forbid the State Board of Elections from ordering all-mail elections or sending out unrequested absentee ballots. It would make knowingly delivering absentee ballots to voters who didn’t request them a Class I felony. It would require applications for absentee ballots to have a tracking bar code. 

The coronavirus created concerns about voters’ ability to attend polling places or get the required number of witnesses to cast a mail-in ballot. The bill would reduce the number of required witnesses to cast absentee ballots from two to one. But it would require the witness to provide a printed name and an address. 

Voters could request absentee ballots by email, phone, mail, fax, or a newly created online portal. County boards of elections would get an additional two weeks to process absentee ballot requests. They would gain flexibility to fill positions for precinct officials.

Lawmakers debated the integrity of the voting process and the required number of witnesses.

Changing requirements on absentee ballots drew the ire of civil-rights advocates when the board requested emergency powers, and the controversy remains. The NC NAACP is organizing online protests to demand the state to mail absentee ballots to all voters. 

“Currently two witnesses are required, but there’s no printed address. Somebody could just scribble ‘A’ on the line and say that’s a signature,” said Rep. Holly Grange, R-New Hanover. “This is actually more restrictive. A printed name and address has to be present on that ballot.”

The change in witness requirements would apply for the duration of the pandemic, but some lawmakers suggested they could become permanent. 

“You only get one signature, but you actually know whose signature it is,” said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, chairman of the committee. “This body may review the data at the end of the election and decide that is a better policy than two scribbles on paper that you can’t read.”