Every booth is occupied with 2020 primary election voters just before 7 a.m. at the American Legion 7 polling place in Durham County on March 3, 2020. Jake Axelbank / Carolina Public Press

The outbreak of COVID-19 is making it more difficult and more expensive to run elections.

In March, state elections officials asked the General Assembly for relief, both in the form of funding and some tweaked laws to make running elections during the pandemic easier.

The N.C. House passed a bipartisan election bill Thursday afternoon that would provide the state with money needed to access much larger federal funds. The bill would also change state law to both make it easier to vote by mail and for election officials to staff their polling places.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

However, the bill does not provide the full scope of relief sought by the state Board of Elections, county elections directors or democracy watchers.

“Neither party got everything they wanted,” said Rep. Allison Dahle, D-Wake, who was one of the bill’s sponsors.

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

House Bill 1169 passed with an overwhelming majority, 116-3, even as some Democrats grumbled that it did not make voting by mail easy enough and that the bill included unnecessary provisions. The bill will now be sent to the state Senate, where it is expected to be taken up quickly.

In an April 22 letter to the General Assembly, state Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell said elections officials needed the money by June 15 at the latest to make all the necessary purchases for the November election, not to mention the second primary election in June. The second primary affects the southwestern part of the state in Congressional District 11, plus a local election in Columbus County. She asked the legislature to act during the special session that began April 28.

Dahle said lawmakers have been working on this bill for a month and a half. To speed up the process, she said, if there were any requests that members of the House or Senate were not comfortable with, they just took that piece out.

The state really needed the federal money, Dahle said. To get those funds, a combined $22.7 million from the Help America Vote Act and the CARES Act, the state needs to provide almost $4.5 million in matching funds.

The money will be used to make security improvements for the election and to cover COVID-19-related costs, such as printing and postage for a predicted spike in by-mail ballot demand and personal protective equipment at the polls.

An investigation by the NC Watchdog Reporting Network, of which CPP is a member, shows that counties would be unlikely to afford the changes to elections brought on by COVID-19 without this additional support.

A compromise of 120 lawmakers

When sponsors of this bill, Reps. Holly Grange, R-New Hanover, and Dahle, spoke about the bill, they stressed its bipartisan nature.

“This is a compromise bill of 100, really 120 people,” Dahl said. “Even though there were only four (sponsors), we still had our caucuses that we talked to and went back and forth with.”

Beyond the state’s partial match required to access federal funding, the election bill would make several temporary changes that would expire at the end of the year and a few permanent changes.

The House bill would temporarily lower the witness requirement on absentee by-mail ballots from two adult witnesses to one. Since the majority of households in North Carolina have fewer than three adults — one to vote, two to witness — the current requirement was seen as a burden during a pandemic.

At the same time, the bill would make it easier for voters to request absentee by-mail ballots. If this bill is passed by the Senate and signed into law, ballot requests could be submitted by email or fax, in addition to by mail or in person. The state has allocated $424,000 for the state to create an online portal for absentee ballot requests.

Under the bill, voters would also be able to track their ballots by way of a bar code or unique identifier associated with the ballot, both when their county’s board of elections mails it out and when they mail ballots back.

County boards of elections would have increased flexibility in hiring poll workers. Until the end of the year, only one poll worker per precinct would need to be from that precinct, while others could be recruited from across the county.

Since poll workers in North Carolina are, on average, over 65 years old and are therefore more vulnerable to serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19, counties are expecting to struggle to retain and recruit poll workers.

The bill also clarifies how multipartisan assistance teams operate during a pandemic. These teams usually assist voters in residential care homes, but there is currently an executive order banning visitors to these centers to limit the spread of COVID-19 to vulnerable populations. Under the bill, the state Board of Elections would work with the Department of Health and Human Services to create a plan whereby the teams can work safely “within hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, assisted living or other congregate living situations.”

Requests that didn’t make the election bill

In a March 26 letter, Brinson Bell gave the General Assembly a list of requests to help run the June second primary in Western North Carolina and the November elections during a pandemic.

The election bill failed to adopt a few of the requests, such as paying for return postage for absentee ballots.

Both Democratic sponsors of the bill, Dahle and Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said they requested this, but Republicans in both the House and Senate balked at the cost.

By turning Election Day into a state holiday, state and county employees could work the polls, Brinson Bell said in her letter. That request was not taken up, nor was increased pay for poll workers or changes to one-stop voting site and hours requirements.

Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, introduced another bill with the Democrats’ wish list of changes for the November election.

One item on her wish list was to expand curbside voting, whereby voters can remain in their cars at a polling place and a poll worker will deliver, retrieve and submit the ballot for them.

The idea is that voters concerned about contracting COVID-19 at a polling place could vote from their cars, as people with physical limitations are currently able to do.

“We encourage anyone concerned about contracting coronavirus to vote by mail in 2020,” said Pat Gannon, spokesperson for the state Board of Elections, in an email, in which he also described several measures, such as social distancing and providing masks, that will be used in precincts to keep voters healthy.

Pro-democracy advocacy groups had other requests to make the voting process run smoothly that were not picked up in the legislation.

Voter registration has dipped significantly, Democracy NC’s executive director, Tomas Lopez, said. He would have liked to see an extension in the deadline for voter registrations.

Voters also frequently and unknowingly make mistakes on the ballot envelopes, forcing boards of elections to discard those ballots, he said.

“There’s not a process right now for people to cure absentee ballots that have issues,” Lopez said.

That means that, as in previous elections, a substantial percentage of voters who vote by mail would have their ballots rejected and potentially not know it until after the election. In a year when the state Board of Elections projects that vote-by-mail ballots could balloon from 5% of voters to 40%, that could result in the state not counting of thousands of ballots.

Other bills can be passed that could address some of these concerns, though time is running short for the state and county boards of elections to put more changes into place before the November election.

Election bill tries to solve problems that don’t exist

Some measures of the election bill solve problems that do not exist and were not expected to manifest.

For example, the bill would prohibit North Carolina from moving to an all vote-by-mail election in November.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in North Carolina, the legislature received requests from mostly Democratic voters and some advocates to move the election to all vote by mail, according to Dahle.

This was never a feasible option for the state, and the state Board of Elections never considered requesting that move.

Brinson Bell stated during the March 20 board meeting that the state’s “response to coronavirus for the November general election must not upend the system we have in place but rather be an all-out effort to reinforce, strengthen and improve voting as we know it in North Carolina.”

The bill also has a provision requiring photo ID in the November 2020 election. But the issue of photo ID is already tied up in the courts, with multiple court injunctions currently preventing North Carolina from forcing voters to provide photo ID in order to vote.

This added provision does not negate the court injunctions. Even if the courts unexpectedly overturned those rulings in time for photo ID to be required for November, it would be very difficult for county elections offices to prepare for that change in time. This bill, though, would add to the ID options allowed to voters.

Finally, the bill made it a felony for an employee of a county board of elections to send an absentee ballot to a voter who had not requested one. Under current elections law, voters already need to request an absentee ballot, either to vote early or vote by mail.

The state Board of Elections and the legislature received a glut of emails propagating conspiracy theories that Brinson Bell, the Democratic-appointed head of elections in the state, could use emergency powers to send ballots to all voters. This, as well, was never proposed.

Republican legislators felt strongly that each of these provisions should be included in this bill.

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.

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