(Correction added on May 23 to item 3 under “changes for 2020 only.”)
We knew that it was coming.
Since the coronavirus began affecting government policy back in March, I have noted that there were going to be proposed changes to how we conduct elections in North Carolina.
That day has come in the form of House Bill 1169. The bill is sponsored by Reps. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover), Allison Dahle (D-Wake), Destin Hall (R-Caldwell), and Pricy Harrison (D-Guildford). The bipartisan nature of the bill’s sponsors and the quick support it has received from different sides in the General Assembly, suggests that it was the product of a great deal of backroom haggling. As with all such grand bargains, there is good along with the bad.
An additional wrinkle is that some of the provisions of the bill are temporary, expiring after the general election this November, while other changes are permanent.
Here is a brief summary of some of the changes in the bill, divided into changes for 2020 only and permanent changes.
Changes for 2020 only:
- Reduces witness requirements for absentee ballots from 2 to 1
- Allow county boards of elections to appoint people who live outside of a precinct to fill most precinct assistant positions on election day (but also requires counties to work with parties to maintain the partisan balance of election day worker)
- Allows people who have been trained and appointed to multipartisan assistance teams (MATs) by the county board of elections to help any voter with absentee ballot requests and absentee ballots. Their current focus is on assisting those in assisted living facilities. [CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated that it would allow owners, managers, or employees of assisted living facilities who are members of a MAT to assist voters in those facilities. It does not.]
- Requires officials to develop a plan so that MAT members can safely access assisted living facilities
- Provides $4.5 million in matching funds for the State Board of Elections to secure $23.6 million in federal election funds and broad outlines how the state board is to spend that money, including the purchase of personal protective equipment
It is better for mail ballot security to have two witnesses, for reasons I wrote about on April 30. Legislators will have to decide if coronavirus transmission concerns over having two witnesses justify weakening that security.
Items 1 and 3 are problematic in tandem. Ballot harvesters could exploit those changes by having their operatives get “deputized” into a MAT. They could then work alone to conduct the kinds of activities as a MAT member that they had previously done as members of “community organizations.” This could be at least partially fixed by prohibiting anyone who is paid or “compensated” more than $50 by any organization for voter registration or get-out-the-vote work from serving on a MAT.
- Adds a “unique identifier” (most likely a barcode) absentee ballot container envelopes to allow voters to confirm that the county board of elections had received the ballots
- Expands the period when county boards of elections must hold public meetings to approve or disapprove absentee ballot applications from three weeks before the election to five weeks
- Allows voters to request absentee ballot requests forms by mail, email, or fax
- Requires that the State Board of Elections set up a web site to let voters or their near relatives request an absentee ballot online with an electronic signature
- Specifically prohibits the State Board of Elections or the SBE Executive Director from sending absentee ballots to anyone who did not request them or instituting an all-mail election.
- Makes it a felony for any state or county election board member or employee to knowingly send an absentee ballot to a person who did not request one
- Adds “public assistance” IDs to the list of IDs accepted under North Carolina’s voter ID law
The ID requirement (item seven) seems like a bit out of place in this bill, especially since North Carolina’s voter ID law has been enjoined by two courts, but this is actually a compromise that likely helped grease the skids for getting bipartisan support for the bill. Republicans are allowing a form of ID that they had previously opposed. At the same time, the Democrats are undercutting the lawsuits that led to the injunctions (the lack of public assistance IDs in the list of acceptable IDs was a factor mentioned by both courts).
There is a problem with item four (absentee ballot requests through an SBE web page). S683, passed last year in response to ballot harvesting in Bladen County, states that only the voter, the voter’s near relative or verifiable legal guardian, or a member of a multipartisan team can fill out or submit an absentee ballot request form. While the current bill states that the voter, or the voter’s near relative or verifiable legal guardian, must provide all the information on a standard absentee ballot request form and an electronic signature, ballot harvesters might be able to exploit the web site by going door-to-door with portable electronic devices. The ballot harvesters would then have that information stored on their devices or, at a minimum, have knowledge of when ballots would likely be in voters’ homes. While the bill current requires that the absentee ballot request web page be able to track the IP address of anyone who uses it, this part of the bill should be amended to both specifically prohibit groups from exploiting the web page by using their devices to make the requests (while allowing the use of public computers, such as those at libraries), and to require that the web site not accept requests if it cannot trace them to IP addresses.
There are serious problems with this bill that need to be addressed before it is passed, but the coronavirus has sadly made much of it necessary to temporarily rebalance election access and security.