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Voting in North Carolina faces some big changes with a Republican-backed bill

Stickers reading "I Voted By Mail" are displayed as the Wayne County Board of Elections prepares absentee ballots in Goldsboro, N.C., on Sept. 22, 2022. A Republican-backed bill would eliminate a grace period for mail ballots to arrive.
Hannah Schoenbaum
Stickers reading "I Voted By Mail" are displayed as the Wayne County Board of Elections prepares absentee ballots in Goldsboro, N.C., on Sept. 22, 2022. A Republican-backed bill would eliminate a grace period for mail ballots to arrive.

DURHAM, N.C. — Major changes are likely coming to North Carolina's voting rules.

The General Assembly's narrow Republican supermajority is poised to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of an elections bill.

GOP lawmakers say the measure will strengthen election integrity in the state, but in his veto message last week, Cooper said the legislation "has nothing to do with election security and everything to do with Republicans keeping and gaining power." The governor warned the bill would "erect new barriers for younger and non-white voters" and "encourages voter intimidation at the polls by election deniers and conspiracy believers."

Perhaps the most significant change in the proposal is the elimination of a three-day grace period for counting mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day. The bill would also expand access for partisan poll watchers.

Public confidence was "greatly undermined" in 2020, a GOP lawmaker says

The mail ballot grace period has been in place since it gained unanimous bipartisan approval from state legislators back in 2009. But Republican lawmakers set their sights on its elimination amid partisan rancor in 2020.

That year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, voting rights advocates, led by prominent Democratic-aligned election attorney Marc Elias, had sued the state elections board to extend the grace period for mail ballots and to ease rules around the absentee-by-mail witness requirement. The State Board of Elections and Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat and now a 2024 gubernatorial candidate, settled the lawsuit. Consequently, the grace period for mail-in ballots was extended by six days.

The settlement infuriated GOP lawmakers, who accused Stein and the elections board of colluding with Elias and the national Democratic Party to circumvent the legislature's authority. Their lingering anger was clear in statements made during floor debates over this year's elections bill, which Republicans say will boost public confidence in Election Day results.

"This confidence was greatly undermined during the 2020 election when our attorney general and director of the Board of Elections, Ms. [Karen] Brinson Bell, entered into a collusive settlement that subverted state law to extend the absentee ballot deadline from three days after the election to nine days after Election Day," state Sen. Warren Daniel, one of the three Republican co-chairs of the Redistricting and Elections Committee, claimed in June.

North Carolina Republican state Sen. Warren Daniel speaks at a news conference on June 12 in Raleigh, N.C.
Gary D. Robertson / AP
North Carolina Republican state Sen. Warren Daniel speaks at a news conference on June 12 in Raleigh, N.C.

Daniel and fellow Republicans have pushed this legislation as a way of restoring public faith in the integrity of elections without acknowledging that much of that mistrust is rooted in baseless claims of widespread voter fraud drummed up by GOP candidates and their supporters.

"Everybody knows what Election Day is: It's when the votes are in, when the counting begins," Daniel said in June, just before a party-line vote that advanced the GOP-backed bill. "And every day that passes after Election Day with votes still coming in creates the possibility of distrust in the process."

However, election results in North Carolina are never final or certified until 10 days later, after the statutorily required county canvass. Also, under state law, mail ballots from military personnel and other citizens overseas get counted as long as they are postmarked by — and arrive within nine days of — Election Day.

The GOP bill would give partisan poll observers greater latitude

Among the legislation's other notable provisions, it would more clearly define — and give greater latitude to — the way partisan poll observers conduct themselves at voting sites. Recognized parties may provide lists of poll observers for sites wherever they have candidates on the ballot.

The parties may appoint two observers for each site and then a smaller number of at-large observers. Under the new bill, the observers may move about the voting area, listen to conversations between voters and precinct officials as long as the discussion pertains solely to elections administration, and go in and out of the site to communicate by telephone with party officers.

People vote at a polling place on Nov. 8, 2022, in Fuquay-Varina, N.C.
Allison Joyce / Getty Images
Getty Images
People vote at a polling place on Nov. 8, 2022, in Fuquay-Varina, N.C.

Democrats in North Carolina have voiced concerns about voter intimidation and interference by partisan poll observers.

"This is an invitation to remake the role of poll observers into partisan operatives who are intent on intimidating voters and causing trouble," Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus said.

After the 2022 primaries, the State Board of Elections surveyed county elections directors about issues at polling sites. Officials in 15 counties reported witnessing poll observers who violated rules of conduct in place at the time by talking to and intimidating voters, frequently exiting and re-entering the voting area to call their party headquarters, and trying to enter restricted areas where ballot data were being uploaded.

But Jim Womack — president of the North Carolina Election Integrity Team, which is a branch of the Election Integrity Network, founded by conservative lawyer and Trump ally Cleta Mitchell — is a proponent of greater freedom for poll observers and said the new legislation "builds confidence across the country and that's why it's so important to have poll observers there representing all the parties that can assure themselves that no one party has controlled or manipulated the election."

Democrats had a hand in shaping the final legislation

Despite their opposition to the changes, Democrats in the state legislature worked with Republican bill sponsors to soften the legislation's impact.

Democratic state Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed negotiated an amendment to several aspects of the bill, including the scaling back of a provision to require signature verification of absentee-by-mail ballots. North Carolina law already requires two witnesses or a notary for mail-in ballots, one of only a dozen states with witness requirements.

When the new bill originated in the Senate it would have required every county elections office to use signature verification software to validate mail-in ballots. Mohammed persuaded his GOP colleagues to agree to launching a limited, 10-county pilot, starting next year. Furthermore, the bill provides that during the pilot no ballots would be thrown out solely on the basis of failed signature verification.

Mohammed said he is grateful Republicans were open to discussion, even though he still thinks the overall legislation is not necessary because GOP-stoked fears of voter fraud — and the need for more restrictive voting laws — are unfounded. "It's a bill that's out there searching for a problem," he said.

But with a veto override virtually guaranteed, Mohammed and his fellow Democrats will have to take some solace in the limited ways they helped shape the final legislation.

Republicans are flexing new political power in North Carolina

The GOP voting bill comes as Republicans in North Carolina are flexing stronger political power on issues they've long sought to address.

GOP legislators have been trying to reshape the political landscape through redistricting and voting laws since they seized a majority in the 2010 elections. But state and federal courts often thwarted their efforts, tossing gerrymandered maps on racial and excessive partisan grounds. An earlier photo ID voting requirement was thrown out as part of an omnibus elections bill that a federal judge said targeted African American voters "with almost surgical precision."

However, along with reclaiming a veto-proof legislative supermajority after last year's midterms, Republicans have cemented a 5-2 majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court. One of the new GOP-affiliated justices is Phil Berger Jr., son of the state Senate's president pro tempore.

Justice Berger and his conservative colleagues have made it clear they are more sympathetic to Republican lawmakers' positions on court battles over key elections laws than the previous high court's Democratic majority.

In early 2022, the court, with a 4-3 Democratic-leaning majority, had declared Republican-drawn legislative and congressional district maps to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered with excessive partisan bias. The court-ordered redrawn congressional map turned a heavy GOP tilt into an even 7-7 split between Republican and Democratic U.S. representatives from North Carolina.

It was a landmark decision that only stood until conservatives took a majority on the court after the 2022 midterms. After that shift, Republican lawmakers immediately sought rehearings on the redistricting case as well as a case in which a more recent photo ID law, drafted in 2018, had been thrown out because of its potentially discriminatory impact on Black voters.

The new court granted those rehearings and promptly reversed the earlier decisions. The five conservative justices held that courts had no business policing partisanship in redistricting and that the standards for doing so are too vague. Furthermore, the court reinstated the photo ID law, which goes into effect for this year's municipal elections.

Republican lawmakers in the North Carolina General Assembly are now poised to redraw more favorable maps once again with a sympathetic state Supreme Court majority unlikely to get in their way.

Copyright 2023 North Carolina Public Radio

Rusty Jacobs
Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC. Rusty previously worked at WUNC as a reporter and substitute host from 2001 until 2007 and now returns after a nine-year absence during which he went to law school at Carolina and then worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Wake County.