With just five months and change until Election Day, 2020 – and with many virus-leery North Carolinians wondering how they’ll manage to vote safely – efforts to update the state’s election laws to meet the challenges of COVID-19 show that push is coming to shove.
Those efforts are unfolding in the General Assembly, where legislation helping voters have their say while minimizing the risk of coronavirus exposure is drawing support from both Republicans and Democrats.
And in case lawmakers needed further encouragement – or prodding – to act before it’s too late, fair-election advocates have gone to court with strong claims as to why forcing citizens to risk their health, maybe even their lives, in order to cast ballots would trample their constitutional rights.
North Carolina’s regime of voting laws has often been caught in a tug of war between those who favor easier access to the polls and those who’d rather tighten up. But those rules – whether drawn in good faith to uphold election integrity or perhaps in the hope of gaining partisan advantage – were never designed to operate amid a contagion spread by ordinary person-to-person interaction, when that familiar trip to the neighborhood polling place suddenly becomes worrisome.
Ah, but to vote in the Tar Heel State, you don’t actually need to show up. You can cast an absentee ballot, obtained and submitted via the good old U.S. mail.
Yet there’s a catch: As things stand, the process for voting absentee poses its own set of health risks. Not only that, but a surge of voters choosing to vote absentee could overwhelm the capacity of election officials to manage the process, sending the election off the rails as ballots went undistributed or uncounted.
The State Board of Elections back in March detailed many of the pending problems in a request to legislators for changes, mainly ones making it easier to vote absentee. It followed up with a suggested timeline and cost estimates.
House Bill 1169, approved on May 28 by a floor vote of 116-3, picks up on many of the board’s suggestions. Among them, the bill would:
- Require an absentee voter to mark his or her absentee ballot in the presence of one witness, instead of either two witnesses or a notary. The witness then signs the ballot return envelope and prints name and address for better identification. Needing just one witness would let many voters avoid having to leave home for witnessing or having to invite someone who’s not a household member into the home – all in line with safe social distancing. The change would be in effect through the end of this year, making it a conservative but wholly reasonable pandemic response. Indeed, an argument can be made for scrapping the witness rule outright. Senate Bill 828, sponsored by Democrats including Minority Leader Dan Blue of Raleigh, would do just that, treating all absentee voters the same as military or civilian voters overseas.
- Allow requests for absentee ballots to be made by phone, by email or through a designated online portal. Official ballot request forms not hand-delivered now must be submitted to local election boards via snail mail, which means senders must have envelopes and postage. It’s a common-sense adjustment that will help some voters steer clear of the post office.
- Appropriate $2.1 million in state funds as a match for $11.0 million made available by Congress through the so-called CARES Act to support additional election expenses due to the pandemic. Much of the money would filter through to county election boards to pay for the distribution of additional absentee ballots, as well as to hire enough poll workers to keep in-person polling places functioning (it’s expected that many older workers will step aside because of their concerns about virus susceptibility).
Whereas no more than 5 percent or so of the state’s voters typically have voted absentee-by-mail, estimates are that the share of absentee votes this fall could reach 40 percent. That raises an issue not addressed in H.B. 1169 – coping with a crunch of absentee ballots cast legitimately but at the last minute. The State Board recommends pushing back the date when those ballots would be counted to help keep the process manageable.
Among other good suggestions not included in the bill as it stands: 1) Providing prepaid postage for absentee ballot submissions, 2) Making Election Day a state holiday to free up larger spaces such as schools for safer voting sites and also to help enlist more poll workers, and 3) Furnishing accessible drop boxes for absentee ballots to be returned without going through the mail. A major step that didn’t make the cut would be to send absentee ballot request forms to all voters, whether or not they’d asked for one. But that’s the sort of voter-friendly gesture that gives many Republicans – such as President Trump — the willies.
Courts in session
H.B. 1169’s House approval came with the support of Speaker Tim Moore, Republican of Kings Mountain, and Rep. Darren Jackson of Knightdale, the chamber’s Democratic leader. It was a notable move toward compromise on the sort of issues often marked by partisan conflict, and there reportedly is some backing among the Senate’s majority Republicans. Of course, the Senate still could put up a roadblock if enough members take Trump’s overblown warnings about absentee ballot fraud as an excuse to put voters at risk.
Earth to POTUS: Republicans voting in person at crowded polls can catch “the ’VID” too. And the bill’s authors have been careful to include anti-fraud provisions such as tight controls on ballot distribution along with ways to track individual ballots through the pipeline.
It’s simply realistic to note that legislators now have an extra incentive to respond to the pandemic with changes making voting easier for people who don’t want to vote in person. That incentive has come in the form of lawsuits seeking election law revisions well beyond those in H.B. 1169. For the N.C. Council of Churches, which favors broad access to fair and honest elections in furtherance of a just society, it’s encouraging that the courts will have a chance to rule as they have, bravely, in other similar cases.
The latest suit was filed May 22 in federal court on behalf of the League of Women Voters, the Durham-based nonpartisan advocacy group Democracy N.C. and six individual plaintiffs who argue that under current rules their right to vote this fall would be unconstitutionally hindered.
The essence of the suit – similar to one filed earlier in state court by groups aligned with the national Democratic Party – is that voters can’t be forced to jeopardize their health in order to cast their ballots, and that even the absentee voting option now available poses health risks.
No member of the House or Senate relishes the idea of being told what to do by the courts – especially if that person thinks his or her party might be disadvantaged. And take it from our president himself: He’s one Republican, at least, who believes mail-in voting hurts GOP candidates. With North Carolina’s winner-take-all trove of 15 electoral votes and its recent history as a swing state, it stands as a key battleground in Trump’s campaign to win a second term.
Democratic gains two years ago perhaps offer some comfort for Gov. Roy Cooper, also running for re-election, and for Democratic legislators hoping to recapture majorities in Republican hands since the elections of 2010. Whatever the outcome, it will rate as a disaster if voting amid the pandemic is so problematic – i.e. dangerous – that a cloud of illegitimacy undermines the trust essential to government by consent of the governed.