RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina legislators began debating a measure Wednesday that would move up mail-in absentee balloting deadlines, a shift that Republicans say would balance voting access with security and boosting public confidence in elections. The measure comes following a wave of numerous allegations nationwide about the 2020 elections but few certified voting problems.
Democrats on a Senate committee said the proposal requiring that ballots be received by officials by Election Day in order to count would increase uncertainty for voters who can't trust the post office anymore for timely deliveries. Current law mandates ballot envelopes must be postmarked by the election date and received within three days to be counted.
Republicans are pushing the bill while still angry about a legal settlement the State Board of Elections entered into a with a union-affiliated group for last fall's elections that extended the post-Election Day deadline to receive mailed ballots from Nov. 6 to Nov. 12. The three-day window is now enforceable again. Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican and a chief bill sponsor, has criticized harshly the settlement as an unlawful, partisan scheme designed to help Democratic candidates.
Newton said the proposed deadline adjustment would help wrap up the election process more quickly, allowing media outlets and the public to determine winners in statewide races sooner.
“Everybody knows when Election Day is. It’s when the votes are in, all in, and counting begins,” Newton said. “Every day that passes without a declared winner just breeds suspicions and conspiracy theories in people’s minds.”
The measure, which also would move up the usual deadline to request a mail-in ballot from one week before the election to two weeks, applies to statewide primary elections as well.
Senate Democrats said users of mail-in balloting — extremely popular in 2020 as a safe option amid the coronavirus pandemic — would have to guess how early it should be received to count.
“So a voter doesn’t know when they have to put their ballot in the mail here. They hope and pray it gets there by Election Day,” Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus of Mecklenburg County told Newton in the committee. “If it doesn’t, it’s not their fault, is it? Do we throw that ballot out?” It woudn't be accepted under the bill.
Newton said voters would have plenty of notice before the 2022 elections to learn about a new deadline. The committee didn’t vote on the bill, which would have to clear the Senate and House before going to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, a longtime critic of GOP voting policies.
The debate comes as Republicans across the country have filed scores of voting-related bills they say are designed to restore trust in elections, even as many GOP members have spread baseless claims that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. Donald Trump won North Carolina's electoral votes in an election that saw record turnout and few voting problems.
Newton said his legislation doesn't focus on the national picture but only on election “vulnerabilities” that were seen in North Carolina: “We’re just going to shore up those leaks in the system.” Election advocacy groups who have opposed Republican legislation for a decade call the absentee changes another voter suppression effort.
In 2020, more than 15,000 ballots were received in the mail between the day after Election Day and Nov. 12, according to State Board of Elections data that doesn't include ballots from deployed military members. Eighty-five percent of them arrived by Nov. 6, which would have been the deadline had it not been for the legal settlement. Nearly 13,700 of the ballots were counted, compared to 5.5 million ballots cast statewide.
North Carolina officials already send ballots to people who have requested them 60 days before Election Day — the earliest start in the nation for presidential elections. No one needs to give a reason to vote by mail, and there are 17 days of early in-person voting.
The bill also would prohibit election boards from accepting private donations to administer elections and employ temporary workers.
Newton cited millions of dollars received from the state by the Center for Tech & Civic Life, whose most famous donor was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife. Newton said such connections can lead to questions of favoritism and conflicts of interest.North Carolina's funds were used in part to purchase single-use pens for voters at the polls and to provide bonuses to workers at early voting sites.