- Public health and fiscal prudence dictates holding the 11th Congressional District special election in November.
- Given how much we don’t know about the coronavirus outbreak, it is too early to make changes to the November general election.
- Absentee ballot reforms passed in 2019 should be maintained and the use of Multipartisan Assistance Teams to help with absentee voting should be expanded.
As the coronavirus continues to spread across North Carolina, we are having to adjust how we do things. Elections are no different. For North Carolina, an immediate issue has been resolved, but several other election policy issues still need to be resolved.
The North Carolina Board of Elections has announced that they will delay the 11th Congressional District Republican second primary from May 12 to June 23, although it is not clear at this time if the second primary will have to be pushed back again into late summer.
No matter when the 11th District primary is held, one thing that had long been considered a bug in second primaries may be a feature during the coronavirus pandemic: low voter turnout. For example, our most recent second primary, for the Republican nomination in the 3rd Congressional District in 2019, only had 36,019 votes. That relatively low density of voters allows for measures to mitigate the spread of coronavirus such as regular cleaning of voting facilities and marking off entrances to voting areas so that those in line remain six feet apart.
Push back the 11th Congressional District special election to November
It may also be prudent to delay the special election to fill the seat of retiring 11th Congressional District Congressman Mark Meadows to the general election date on November 3. Whoever wins the special election can be sworn in immediately to serve the last couple of months of Meadow’s term until the new Congress is sworn in in January. Gov. Roy Cooper has the power to set the date for the special election.
Pushing back the special election means that the district would be without representation for a longer period, but it will also mean one less instance when election workers will need to congregate for running an election and canvassing votes.
A delay would also be fiscally prudent. If the special election were held in late summer, the western North Carolina counties in the 11th District will have had run four county-wide elections over eight months. With the fiscal strains those counties are facing due to expenses and possible revenue shortfalls related to the coronavirus outbreak, helping those counties save money makes sense.
Do not make any changes to the November election right now
And what should we do right now about the November general election?
Short answer: nothing.
At the moment, we simply do not have the data we need to make an informed decision about possible procedural changes to the general election. Unfortunately, that has not stopped the State Board of Elections from doing just that:
Also, State Board staff members are drafting recommendations for the General Assembly to consider that may help mitigate effects of the COVID-19 virus on upcoming elections. Recommendations may include amending requirements for absentee by-mail voting and steps to ensure an adequate number of poll workers are available.
The verbiage is important here. They are not studying the issue. They are not gathering information. They are drafting recommendations. Considering how much we don’t know about how coronavirus will progress over the next few months, drafting recommendations now is premature at best and members of the General Assembly should keep that in mind once those recommendations become public.
Maintain absentee ballot reforms enacted in 2019
Clearly, we will have to wait until the state board releases the recommendations to critique them. However, it is not too early to insist on one thing: that the hard-won bipartisan absentee ballot reforms passed last year not be reversed. Those reforms were in response to the reported ballot harvesting by McCrae Dowless on behalf of Republican Mark Harris in the 2018 9th Congressional District race. Subsequent investigations revealed that ballot harvesting in the 9th District was much more extensive than originally alleged, reflecting a clear danger to the integrity of our elections.
Instead of backtracking on absentee ballot reforms, the State Board of Elections should seek to expand the use of Multipartisan Assistance Teams (MATs).
MATs are currently maintained by every county board of elections to help those in assisted living facilities request and submit absentee ballots. If the coronavirus outbreak results in a rise in the use of absentee ballots in the 2020 general election, the role of MATs could be expanded to aiding any members of the general public who requests it. The state should consider helping county governments pay for expanding MATs, either directly or by establishing a fund to which civic groups can contribute. Given the vulnerable populations that MATs work with, members of those teams should be regularly tested for coronavirus. With the ongoing increase in test production, there should be ample tests available for the purpose by late summer.
There may come a time when we should consider other temporary changes to general election voting procedures for this November due to the coronavirus, but now is not that time.