With state legislative redistricting, the 9th Congressional District redo election, and the state House’s budget veto override vote taking all the attention last week, it is easy to forget that the General Assembly still has not passed absentee ballot reform legislation. This despite the need to combat ballot harvesting, which is much more widespread in North Carolina than the weak official response to it would indicate.
The good news is that both chambers have passed versions of absentee ballot reform. The bill, SB 683, is sponsored by Senators Warren Daniel (R – Avery, Burke, Caldwell), Floyd B. McKissick, Jr. (D – Durham), and Ralph Hise (R – Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Yancey). One version passed the Senate 49-0 while another version passed the House 112-1, an indication of the bill’s broad bipartisan support.
The General Assembly will likely get to reconciling the different versions of the bill soon, so this is a good time to see how the latest version of the bill (version 6) compares with the version I reviewed in early July (version 2). Below are some of the more significant differences between the two versions of the bill, along with my assessment of whether the change is a step forward or back.
Absentee ballot reform
- The earlier version made absentee ballot requests confidential until the voter had voted. The latest version makes absentee ballot requests a public record, as they are currently. (While there is value in being able to see the record of absentee ballot requests, this is a step backwards for allowing ballot harvesters a chance to get to those who have made absentee ballot requests.)
- The earlier version stopped the use of standardized forms. The latest version brings back standardized forms but requires that they be created by the State Board of Elections (in theory, eliminating the mass copying of forms by ballot harvesters) and states that they can only be delivered to the county board of elections by the voter, a near relative or guardian of the voter, or a member of multipartisan team as designated by the county board of elections. (This is not really a step backwards given how difficult it would be for many citizens to know every piece of information they would need to an absentee ballot request.) However…
- The latest version states that requests delivered through the US Postal Service or a “designated delivery service” shall be valid. (This is a step backwards. While I can appreciate the desire to keep the absentee-by-mail process as expedient as possible, this provision gives ballot harvesters a new route to submit massive amounts of absentee ballot requests (the first step in the ballot harvesting process) through the mail. If this version of the bill passes, local activists should look for spikes in the number of mailed-in absentee ballot requests as a red flag that their is a ballot harvesting operation going on in their county.)
- Requires those who cannot send a copy of an acceptable ID with their absentee ballot request to submit either their NC drivers license number, their voter ID number, or the last four digits of their social security number. (This is a step forwards.)
- Prohibits the display of a voter’s party affiliation on the outside of their ballot container envelope. (This is a small but obvious step forwards.)
- Increased the penalty for trying to sell an absentee ballot or ballot request, buy an absentee ballot or request, or pay someone based on the number of absentee ballot request forms returned to the county board of elections from a misdemeanor to a felony. (This is a step forwards.)
- As with the earlier version of the bill the latest version reintroduces early voting on the last Saturday before election day. However, it mandates a closing time of no later than 2:00 PM (instead of 1:00 PM as in the earlier version) and eliminates the option for county boards to keep early voting going until 5:00 PM on the last Saturday. (Meh.)
- The latest version of the bill also instructs the State Board of Elections to consider whether a local early voting plan “disproportionately favors any party, racial or ethnic group, or candidate” before they approve it. This and the requirement that counties keep all early voting locations open for the same hours are an attempt to stop the “gerrymandering” of early voting. (I don’t know how much of an impact this would have, but it is a step forwards as far as it goes.)
The latest version also has an unrelated section allowing county boards to approve the continued use of direct record electronic (touchscreen) voting systems through 2020 after testing them in a simulated election.
Either version of SB 683 would be a great improvement over current law, but legislators should selectively keep some of the changes to the bill while bringing back some parts of the bill have been changed or removed.