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Bill Moving Up Absentee Deadline In NC Clears Senate Panel

Boxes of absentee ballot requests sit at the Durham County Board of Elections office in Durham, N.C. on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.
Ben McKeown
Boxes of absentee ballot requests sit at the Durham County Board of Elections office in Durham, N.C. on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.

Mail-in absentee ballots in North Carolina would have to be received by the day of the election, under a Republican-backed bill that cleared a divided Senate committee on Wednesday.

Current law says ballot envelopes must be postmarked by the election date and received within three days to be counted. That window got extended to nine days in 2020 only as the result of a legal settlement between the State Board of Elections and a union-affiliated group who argued more time was needed due to COVID-19 and mail delays.

Republicans still miffed about that settlement say setting the receipt deadline at 5 p.m. on Election Day or on the statewide primary election date will improve the public's confidence in election results. The uncertainty about outstanding mail-in ballots can prevent the media from declaring electoral outcomes when races are close, a bill sponsor said.

"Every day that passes after Election Day with uncertainty just causes distrust in the process. Every day without a declared winner breeds suspicious theories in people's minds," GOP Sen. Warren Daniel of Burke County told the election law committee. "But at least requiring all the votes to be in on Election Day helps to minimize the delay in declaring winners. And for the most part, it helps wrap up the process quickly."

Democrats and their allies said the measure would block the ballots of registered voters from being counted simply because letter carriers take too long to deliver it to county election offices.

"Voters have no clarity here about when they need to complete their ballot and mail it to be certain that it will be counted ... And it leaves voters' right to have their vote counted to the mercy of the U.S. Postal Service," said Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, adding that it will result in "bipartisan disenfranchisement." The new deadline wouldn't apply to ballots of North Carolina residents living overseas.

The measure is among scores filed by Republican state legislators nationwide following the 2020 elections, some of which stem from baseless claims by former President Donald Trump and his allies challenging the results of the presidential election. Republicans in Georgia passed election changes earlier this year, while Texas GOP lawmakers were poised to approve them as well.

Daniel and other bill supporters didn't identify any mischief in the actual casting or counting of North Carolina's elections, which were marked by few problems. The measure, which now goes to another committee, would also direct the State Board of Elections to post daily tallies online of the number of mail-in absentee ballots counted and the outstanding number of ballot requests.

More than 11,600 mail-in ballots received in the first three days after the Nov. 4 election were lawfully counted, according to State Board of Elections data. Another 2,000 received during the next six days allowed under the 2020 rules also were counted. There were more than 5.5 million ballots cast overall.

But Republicans countered that people who learn of the new deadline will adjust their voting, There are 17 days of early in-person voting in all 100 counties as well as Election Day itself. Voters can choose to use private delivery services or turn it in in-person at the county office.

The approved bill omits an earlier change that would have extended the deadline to request a mail-in ballot from one week before the election to two weeks.

The voting rights group Democracy North Carolina called the measure a form of voter suppression, saying it would disproportionately affect minority voters. Group organizer Desmera Gatewood said senators were trying to interfere with the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars limits on voting on the basis of the race.

"If you want people to vote, you should try to allow every single avenue that they can vote," Gatewood said.

The committee also passed two separate election measures. One would bar elections boards from accepting private funds to administer elections.

Millions of dollars were received from entities to purchase pens and to provide bonuses to workers at early voting sites for last fall's elections. The GOP said such donations create the impressions of undue influence in elections.

Another measure responds to recent litigation by creating an online portal for the blind and visually impaired to cast absentee ballots. It also directs the State Board of Elections to create on its website a way for people to register to vote online. Most can already register online through the Division of Motor Vehicles website.

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