GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – Gov. Roy Cooper – and the courts – will get the next swing at the significant changes to voting rights passed by the North Carolina General Assembly on Wednesday night.
Working back and forth between the chambers and late into the night, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 747, the bill that the House expanded greatly to offer new rules for voting for the 2024 elections.
The Senate had passed SB 747– with its companion SB 749 – along party-line votes on June 21, but the House doubled it in size and scope before passing the bill through two committees on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.
The summary memo prepared by staff members was 13 pages to outline the 42 pages of the committee substitute, which is more than 50% longer than the 24 pages of the Senate’s original.
The House-augmented bill passed both chambers on party-line votes, but not before Democrats in the House tried dramatically to amend it to address what members felt were significant deficiencies and problems and even delay its implementation to a more comfortable 2025.
Cooper likely will veto the bill, but after having six more of his rejections overridden by the lawmakers on Wednesday, this version likely could be considered law, save potential legal challenges, which Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg) and Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) predicted could happen.
The bill in short changes early voting procedures, eliminates the 3-day grace period for mail-in ballots, requires more poll workers for early-voting sites, gives more leeway to observers, sets up tighter policing for voter rolls and requires more personnel to working at precincts.
“We are pushing it quickly. It’s not a Democratic process,” Marcus said during Senate debate, citing very preliminary cost estimates of $6 million for the first two years to implement every aspect.
“Sponsors of this bill have rejected almost all of the Democratic amendments to try to make this bill more fair and to protect democracy. It is a little bit better than it was when it was first revealed with what I called the ‘jumbo jet of voter suppression.’”
Harrison said there are “a lot of shortcomings” and that there is “not enough input from the public. … It makes it harder for individuals to vote.”
“Our track record in North Carolina is not good. We have spent millions on court cases. Now we have another one.”
Marcus cited as four factors that she sees as problematic: The bill eliminates the 3-day grace period for absentee ballot and perhaps disenfranchises early one-stop voters based on one bounced, undeliverable postcard without the voter even knowing. “I think this violates federal law,” she said.
She also cited an “invitation to make the role of poll observers into partisan operatives,” and she said she found as legally perilous the requirement that a friend or family member who helps a voter because of disabilities or age must be logged in a public database. “That likely violates the Disability Act and the Voting Rights Act,” she said.
2 amendments adopted
There were 18 amendments proposed Wednesday, and two of them passed: One by Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake) to allow for donations of food, pens and personal protection equipment and one by Rep. Grey Mills (R-Iredell) to clarify how county boards and chief judges review challenges about observers. The rest died on essentially party-line votes after long and arduous pleas.
Mills, the House elections chair, reinforced the bill, saying, “The bill isn’t killing early voting, we’re improving early voting. 17 days of early voting, we didn’t change that. … The bill doesn’t disenfranchise anyone. It lays out what poll observers can do and can’t do. A chief judge can remove someone they think should be removed.
“I hear people talk about this bill and I wonder, ‘What bill are you reading?’ There are a lot of good things in this bill with very good balance.”
Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Randolph), the House minority leader, said that finding judges and poll workers for early voting days could reduce what counties offer.
“If you can’t find people, they can’t have early voting,” Reives said. “We can’t pretend we don’t know the practical effect. There are no appropriations. Not one dime. And we’re going to add all of this? Good luck.”
What’s in the bill
This new bill does not include a change to the number of days for early in-person voting, which county boards can approve, but early voting would be separated in statutes from mail-in ballots to re-establish the rules for each, Mills said.
The meeting of the state’s electors for president and vice president will occur on the first Tuesday after the second Wednesday in December, which makes it consistent with recently changed federal law.
And this bill further pressures mail-in ballots, which were a big part of the Senate’s original bill. All mail-in ballots must be received by 7:30 p.m. on election day, regardless of postmark. No drop-off boxes are allowed during the early voting period There also are authentication issues and other identified deficiencies in absentee ballot validation that were discussed during the hearing.
Reducing the number of days for early in-person voting from the allowed 17 was not included in the bill intentionally, Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Buncombe), an author, told the House committee.
Most of the changes proposed in SB 747 would take effect on Jan. 1, but a few, such as criminal processes, would take hold on July 1.
As was the case in the Senate, critics said that the unreliability of the postal service could be a factor in otherwise appropriate votes being discarded. The new law also would not allow drop boxes for mail-in ballots – as many states employ – and state that a ballot must be delivered by hand to a working at a polling place for early, in-person voting.