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GOP, Democratic Lawmakers Find Common Ground On Absentee Voting

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Erik Hersman
Creative Commons

North Carolina is accustomed to deep partisan divisions over elections law. Republicans and Democrats, along with voting rights advocates, have been battling at the Legislature and in court over issues like redistricting and voter ID for most of the past decade.

Indeed, back in January, a federal judge halted the latest photo ID requirement crafted by the GOP-controlled Legislature from taking effect.

That's what makes the measure now cruising through the General Assembly so exciting, according to Myrna Perez, Director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

"There seems to be some real truth-telling, right? There seems to be some acknowledgment of the real facts on the ground," Perez said.

Fears of catching COVID-19 at polling places this fall are driving up interest in absentee-by-mail voting. State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell said that based on data seen from recent elections in other states like Wisconsin requests for mail-in ballots in North Carolina could jump from around 4% to 40% this year.

"When counties are going to go from a few hundred absentee ballots to thousands of absentee ballots they now need ways to open those envelopes more efficiently--there are machines that can do that," she said.

And counties must still be prepared to serve voters who want to cast their ballots in-person.

"We will need substantial hand sanitizers, we're going to offer every voter a mask, they'll receive their own individual pen to mark their ballot with," Brison Bell added.

Under the bipartisan measure, voters would be able to request absentee ballots by fax, email or online and would need only one witness to submit a mail-in ballot. Additionally, the state would put up matching funds to get millions in federal assistance.

"This bill preserves the ability for all North Carolinians to vote safely," said Rep. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover), one of the bill's primary sponsors.

"Is it what we dreamed of?" Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake), another primary sponsor, rhetorically asked fellow lawmakers during a floor speech last week. "No. Is it better for the people of North Carolina? Yes."

The House then voted 116-3 in favor of the bill. 

"We got a little kumbaya moment in the House, if we could get a kumbaya moment between the House and the Senate, that would be a shining glory," Dahle later added, in a one-on-one interview.

To be sure, Democrats and voting rights advocates sought more, such as pre-paid postage for mail-in ballots, sending unsolicited absentee ballots to all registered voters, and setting up easy-to-access drop-boxes for completed absentee ballots.

But the give-and-take of North Carolina lawmakers stands in stark contrast to the divisive — and unsubstantiated — message coming from the Trump Administration. That absentee voting is a path to voter fraud and should be opposed.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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