In late March, the State Board of Elections asked legislative leaders and Gov. Roy Cooper to make it easier for North Carolinians to vote absentee by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The State Board of Elections executive director Karen Brinson Bell, asked for voters to be allowed to request mail ballots through an online portal, and to allow them to return ballot request forms by fax or email. Bell also requested that the state eliminate the requirement that a mail ballot be witnessed by two people or a notary — because of social distancing — and for the state to pay for postage to make it easier for people to return mail ballots.
All requests submitted by the state board have not come to fruition as the General Assembly two weeks ago. Lawmakers voted on the passage of the state’s COVID-19 relief package — with no measures addressing the issue of safety and ballot access in the upcoming election.
The $1.6 billion package does not direct any funds to the State Board of Elections, but noted in the bill that they would draft separate legislation to deal with it.
But with November coming up in six months, now is the time for the state to make sure that everything possible is done and in place so that every eligible North Carolinian who wants to vote will have the opportunity to do so.
North Carolina is due $22.6 million in federal funding for election technology, security and COVID-19 safety as well as other voting related needs. But the state must come up with about $4.4 million to match. In one of the legislature’s recently passed COVID-19 response bills, it specifically prevents the state board from using any of its own funds for the match. The legislature needs to either quickly appropriate the matching funds or give the elections board a way to access those federal funds.
The additional money is critical. It will help assure our polling places are safe, voters have several ways to cast ballots and as many voters as possible participate in our democracy. It shouldn’t be a matter of partisan bickering or shenanigans. We need to do this quickly so the necessary planning and procedures can be in place.
Further, the legislature needs to act to give local boards more flexibility to assign poll workers and set up polling places for appropriate “social distancing.”
Brinson Bell outlined a series of common-sense recommendations in a March 26 letter to the governor and leaders of the General Assembly. The recommendations were reviewed by the state board members – Republicans and Democrats – and submitted to the legislature without any objections.
The General Assembly needs to quickly enact those proposals.
Match federal funding, make early voting plentiful and accessible; expand opportunities to vote by mail and allow additional flexibility for ballot processing and polling place workers.
Months before voting begins, the state needs to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote but is not registered, has plenty of opportunities to register.
Without legislation to address these challenges posed by the current public health crisis, vulnerable North Carolina voters such as African-American, Latinx, immunocompromised, and elderly voters may be set with more hurdles.
Whether by voting early, voting by mail or casting ballots in person on Election Day, every community needs to have equal access and adequate safety measures to ensure that their voices are heard and their votes are counted.