Bipartisan NC House Vote Opens Door to 2020 Vote-by-Mail

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The North Carolina House overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill aimed at expanding vote-by-mail for the 2020 election in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. The News-Observer has more:

A bill making it easier for people to vote by mail in the 2020 elections passed with near-unanimous support Thursday in the N.C. House of Representatives.

State officials have told lawmakers that normally, around 4% or 5% of North Carolinians vote by mail. But because of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and public health concerns, they expect that it could grow to as high as 40% this year.

“The most important thing about the bill is that it gives the State Board of Elections and county boards the flexibility and resources needed to accommodate the expected increase in absentee ballot requests due to the pandemic,” Republican Rep. Holly Grange, the bill’s lead sponsor, told The News & Observer last week when she first filed it.

The bill would spend millions of dollars on that goal, as well as on public health concerns for polling places, cyber security improvements and more.

It would also make it easier for people to request mail-in ballots, reduce the witness requirement for such ballots from two people to one, and mandate the use of technology that would let voters track their ballots to make sure they actually get submitted.

The N.C. Senate is set to take up the bill next week, although the bill’s sponsors have said they wrote the bill working with some Senate colleagues and expect it to quickly pass that chamber without any major changes or opposition.

If that prediction comes true, the bill could be on Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk to sign or veto by next week.

The bill was crafted with a compromise approach in mind, with provisions aimed at attracting votes from both sides of the aisle:

North Carolina already has less strict absentee voting rules than some other states, in that anyone here can ask to vote by mail — no excuse needed.

Some of the provisions in the bill that further expand ballot access are Democrats’ priorities, but Republicans also got some things on their wish list.

For example… this bill would prevent North Carolina from moving to a 100% vote-by-mail election. It also creates a new felony crime for elections officials who send absentee ballots to voters who didn’t go through the proper steps to request one.

“All we’re trying to do with this provision is saying, if a voter wants to exercise their right to vote by mail, there are steps to do that,” Republican Rep. David Lewis said Wednesday.

In the end, the bill passed 116-3.

Like any compromise, the final package wasn’t completely acceptable to all legislators; voter ID language cost the bill some votes, while other legislators suggested the bill could have done more:

A section mentioning voter ID requirements angered some Democrats, who said it could lead to confusion among voters. They pointed to the fact that, at least as of right now, North Carolina doesn’t have an ID rule in place, due to rulings in both state court and federal court that found the voter ID law may have been motivated by racism.

All three ‘No’ votes came from African American Democrats: Greensboro Rep. Amos Quick III, Goldsboro Rep. Raymond Smith Jr. and Winston-Salem Rep. Derwin Montgomery. Quick said he liked much of what was in the bill but couldn’t vote for it due to the voter ID references.

“It’s just too much poison for me to digest,” Quick said. “There’s absolutely no reason for photo ID to be included in this bill, particularly not at this time.”

But Cary Democrat Allison Dahle, a sponsor of the bill, said it was important for both political parties to have some changes they liked in the bill, in order to get such broad bipartisan support for the changes.

“We worked together to find solutions that both sides of the aisle were comfortable with.,” she said. “Is it perfect? No. Is it what we dreamed of? No. Is it better for the people of North Carolina? Yes.”

Some activist groups including the North Carolina NAACP have also pushed for more to be included in the bill, like making Election Day a holiday or having the state pay to put stamps on all the ballots it sends out, so voters don’t have to, The N&O has reported.

On Thursday, Durham Democratic Rep. Zack Hawkins echoed some of those same concerns.

Hawkins said the increased elections funding was especially important to him, so he voted for the bill, “but I am listening to the people. And they say that this is not enough, and I agree. There is more to be done: Prepaid postage, Election Day as a holiday, giving flexibility to early voting sites.”

Normally, I wouldn’t devote blog space to one house of a legislature enacting a bill, but North Carolina’s recent history – with seemingly endless controversies making elections in that state a moving target – makes the emergence of this compromise (and the prospect of passage) a significant development. Here’s hoping the bipartisan support holds and election officials are able to move ahead with planning for the 2020 election in the Tar Heel State. Stay tuned …

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