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GOP-backed elections bills alarm Democrats, voting rights advocates

Vote Here sign
Erik Hersman
Creative Commons

Republican-backed elections bills aim to curb voter access, say Democrats and civil rights groups.

The haze of bipartisanship around the passage of a state budget the governor has pledged to signhad barely subsided Thursday when Republicans and Democrats in the North Carolina General Assembly quickly returned to their respective sides of the political divide, this time over GOP-backed elections legislation.

The state House took up three bills — SB 326, HB 259, and SB 725 — all of which passed along party lines in the GOP-led chamber. One of them, SB 326, now heads to Governor Roy Cooper, who is almost certain to veto it. That measure would do away with a three-day grace period for counting properly post-marked mail-in ballots received after Election Day.

State law allows for the counting of mail-in ballots post-marked by — but received up to three days after — Election Day. In 2020, however, that grace period was extended to nine days in response to the pandemic and concerns about an overtaxed U.S. Postal Service.

The extension came about through a legal settlement between Democratic state Attorney General Josh Stein's office, the state Board of Elections, and voting rights advocates who sued to ease access to the polls and the ability of voters to cast ballots during the pandemic.

The measure elicited a furious backlash from leaders of the Republican-majority state Legislature. GOP lawmakers were co-defendants in the lawsuits but were not party to the settlement agreement and they accused the attorney general and the Board of Elections of colluding with the plaintiffs in a partisan power grab by Democrats.

"The objective of this bill is to provide certainty to election outcomes."
Rep. Grey Mills (R-Iredell)

Now, Republicans would eliminate a grace period altogether, requiring properly post-marked mail-in ballots to be received by 5:00 p.m. on Election Day. State law provides a nine-day grace period for the receipt of valid mail-in ballots from overseas military personnel and would continue to do so under the proposed legislation.

"The objective of this bill is to provide certainty to election outcomes," said Rep. Grey Mills (R-Iredell). "Hopefully, on election night or as soon as possible thereafter."

Mills says he sees the bill as a way to improve confidence in the electoral system.

"Providing election results to voters in a more timely fashion will build voter confidence in our elections and our elections process," Mills added.

According to state elections officials, post-election audits show individual voter fraud is virtually non-existent in North Carolina, and certainly not at a level to affect election outcomes.

"All of this language about manufacturing voting machines in America and audits and record-keeping and integrity, those are all dog whistles."
Rep. Deb Butler (D-New Hanover)

Democrats like Rep. Deb Butler, of New Hanover County, pushed back against the GOP rationale. They say the only reason anyone questions the integrity of elections is because Republicans keep making baseless claims of fraud while their real aim is to curtail access to the polls for voters who traditionally support Democrats.

"And all of this language about manufacturing voting machines in America and audits and record-keeping and integrity, those are all dog whistles," Butler said.

Butler argued those "dog whistles" are aimed at stoking fears of insecure elections and to foment belief in a false narrative that such measures are necessary and urgently needed.

"It's just not true, and we all know it," Butler said.

The ACLU of North Carolina also condemned the legislation passed on Thursday.

“It is shameful that lawmakers are advancing anti-voter bills in the final days of the legislative session," said Ann Webb, ACLU of North Carolina's senior policy counsel, in a news release. "These undemocratic efforts are part of a national playbook to slowly erode North Carolinians’ access to the ballot piece by piece."

Webb added that she believes the bill and accompanying policies "deserve nothing more than to be cast into the dustbin of history alongside segregation, Jim Crow, and other markers of our state’s racist history of denying people of their right to vote.”

The House also approved two bills that now head to the state Senate. One, HB 259, requires voting machines to be manufactured in the USA and would use jury rolls to ID non-citizens ineligible to vote. The other, SB 725, would prohibit the use of money from private organizations to help fund elections administration.

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