RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – New structures for overseeing and managing elections in North Carolina took a step forward on Wednesday when the Senate passed two bills that Republicans say will protect “election integrity.”

SB 747 and 749, which make significant changes in how elections are conducted,  were approved on second and third readings along party-line votes of 28-19, with three absences, and sent to the House.

SB 749 – titled “No Partisan Advantage in Elections” – would change the make-up of state and county boards of election by removing appointments by the governor, with even numbers of members appointed evenly by both chambers and both parties. SB 747 – called “Election Law Changes” – proposes changes in voting processes, particularly regarding absentee ballots and same-day voter registration.

Before the bills moved forward, there were nearly a dozen amendments to be reviewed. Three amendments to SB 747 that addressed technical changes were approved, but several others dealing with two-factor signature verifications, absentee deadlines, same-day registration and even delay until 2025 were defeated.

After motions by Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Alleghany), they all were tabled along mostly party-line votes. One of them, about voter registration lists, was a vote of 32-15, with some Democrats voting to table.

An amendment to SB 749 by sponsoring Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus), to allow for filling county board positions by letter in some cases, also passed along party lines.

‘Problematic’ and ‘dangerous’

Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg) was aggressive in filing amendments and said the sponsors were not willing to change the larger, more harmful parts of the bill. “I call this bill the jumbo jet of voter suppression,” she said, reversing a handle often used by Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Buncombe), one of its sponsors..

Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg) (NCGA)

She started with how the SB 747 alters “the long-established law in North Carolina” by requiring mail-in ballots must be received by election day. “There will be no more 3-day grace period to allow for U.S. Mail,” she said. “Some votes won’t arrive by the deadline and won’t count.”

She then offered an amendment that voters must be notified if their votes were discarded because they arrived after the deadline, and after it was tabled, she pushed forward with a third to address changes in same-day voter registration, which has been in place for years but now would require more specific documentation and perhaps multiple trips to vote in order to avoid casting a provisional vote.

“The final form is problematic,” she said, in a final plea to reiterate the points addressed by the amendments to SB 747. “We run secure elections in North Carolina. No matter what [former President Donald] Trump or his lawyer say, we don’t need these changes. It’s a bad bill, and we absolutely should reject it.”

Said Sen. Minority Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake): “Senate Bill 747 would make it harder to vote. …. but Senate Bill 749 is this General Assembly’s attempt to control elections. This attempt has been rejected by courts and soundly rejected as voters in the state. It puts us Raleigh politicians in charge of local boards of elections.”

He also said this legislative-appointed board will be unconstitutional and that everyone who has reviewed the concept has agreed. “The courts have ruled: The executive power will reside in the executive branch,” he said. “This violates the current constitutional law of North Carolina.

“This bill is dangerous, and it’s antithetical to our elections. House Bill 749 undermines checks and balances.”

Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus)

He cites voters’ past rejection of a constitutional amendment to the structure that the bill would implement. He says the bill “undermines the people.”

Newton responded by saying “tomorrow’s election is only as good as yesterday’s election.” He cites what he called “collusion” and suggested Gov. Roy Cooper and others had “conspired” to change elections and “violate the law, I submit.”

That “collusive settlement” caused bipartisan 3-day vote counting to grow to nine days in 2020. Newton calls that “one party controlling election administration. … I would think you would want this bill to ensure election integrity.”

What’s next?

These bills now move to the House, which has not announced any proposed election changes that might require further concurrence. Senate committee leaders have indicated that leadership in the two chambers have been discussing how the Senate’s bill might be received.

Cooper might be inclined to veto both bills, but the Republican supermajority has been aggressive and successful in overturning his vetoes. The House has a handful more override votes to consider.

Outside input

Democrats have complained about both bills in large part because of what they saw as significant input by Cleta Mitchell and her election-reform organization, the Election Integrity Network. Mitchell supported former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of voter fraud as he tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Michell was linked to law professor John Eastman who has been in court recently fighting court orders to provide information. She represented Trump, Eastman said, and helped guide efforts to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory in the days before the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. She spoke at the rally that day.

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Mitchell consulted and met with GOP about HB 747 and 749, and some say they were copied from her proposals. At least one representative from her group commented at each of the three committee meetings when the bills were discussed.

What’s in SB 747?

  • Stipulates all ballots except overseas and military ballots must be received by 7:30 p.m. on General Election Day to be counted.
  • Requires local elections boards to employ signature verification software for absentee ballots and to have two signatures for verification on mail-in ballots.
  • Alters rules for same-day voter registration by saying ballots will be provisional unless ID requirements are met.
  • Bans counties from receiving grants to help pay for election expenses.
  • Makes it easier for a person to accuse someone of voter fraud.
  • Requires the courts to provide lists of excused jurors so voter rolls can be scrubbed of anyone who “claimed they aren’t a citizen to get out of jury duty.”

What’s in SB 749?

  • Expands the makeup of the state Board of Elections from five to eight members and includes equal appointments from both chambers of the General Assembly and both parties. Previously the governor appointed members and controlled the partisan balance. Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and the minority leaders in each chamber – currently Sen. Dan Blue (D-Wake) and Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Randolph) – would review names suggested by party leaders and choose four representatives from each.
  • The eight would be named and seated as soon as the bill were to become law, and they could include current members of the state BOE – which are three Democrats and two Republicans appointed through 2027.
  • Stipulates that one of those eight would be elected BOE chair.
  • The board would continue to hire the state executive director. Karen Brinson Bell, who has held that post since 2019, recently was retained until May 15, 2025.
  • The board would be moved administratively under the Secretary of State’s office.
  • Terms are 4 years, effective on May 1 after the Council of State election (which would be 2024), and as is the case now, no person can serve more than two consecutive terms.
  • County boards of elections would reduce from five members to four who would serve 2-year terms and would be appointed by the General Assembly in the same manner as the state board. Each county board would elect a chair each year. This would take effect in January 2024.