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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Local election director wary of proposed changes to voting laws

Republicans focus on absentee, voter certification and board appointments

Brunswick County elections director Sara LaVere speaks in front of the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee on Thursday. (Port City Daily)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The image of future elections in North Carolina is continuing to evolve as the Republican-controlled General Assembly proposes more adjustments to voting and boards of elections.

READ MORE: Brunswick BOE speaks on voter ID funding challenges 3 months ahead of polls opening

ALSO: Could a recent ruling in Alabama have an effect on NC’s congressional map?

After the now Republican-leaning North Carolina Supreme Court reinstated a voter ID law and Republican-drawn gerrymandered maps from 2021 last month, two more bills have hit the General Assembly. 

On Wednesday and Thursday, the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee discussed two pieces of legislation. The primary sponsors for both bills are Sens. Warren Daniel (R-Buncombe, Burke, McDowell), Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus), and Ralph Hise (R-Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, Haywood, Madison, Mitchell, Watuaga, Yancey). 

Senate Bill 747 has a host of changes. It includes restrictions on same-day registration and absentee voting, and eliminates the three-day “grace period” to accept ballots postmarked on Election Day but delivered after. 

It would also require more reporting to the state, purchase of technological certification methods, and ban private money donations to local elections offices. 

Senate Bill 749 would change the appointment process for the state and local boards of elections, shifting power from the governor to the General Assembly. Memberships would be changed to an even number, split equally between Republicans and Democrats.

Sara LaVere, Brunswick County elections director and North Carolina Association of Directors of Elections president, traveled to Raleigh Thursday to entreat lawmakers to discuss the second bill with election officials. 

“We welcome the opportunity for you to talk through some of the administrative efforts that we go through to make elections happen and how some of these laws might change that appointment of elections directors and what happens to us once were appointed. That, of course, is a deep concern of ours,” LaVere said. 

She told Port City Daily the association has not been contacted for input. 

PCD reached out to each elections director in the tri-county to gain clarity on how the bill will affect operations. 

Rae Hunter-Havens provided the following statement: 

“The New Hanover County Board of Elections is aware of and monitoring these proposed bills under consideration in the General Assembly. In the event either of these bills are signed into law, we will work with and seek guidance from the State Board of Elections to better understand these changes and put them into practice.”

LaVere also shared “it’s a stab in the dark” at this point to calculate the additional staff and resources the bill would necessitate.

While some provisions would not affect this year’s municipal election, the bill presents a challenge for local election offices as budget season draws to a close. 

At the state level, Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg) said they “don’t have anywhere close to the budget to implement” the bill’s provisions. 

One of LaVere’s major concerns lies in S.B. 747, which requires county elections offices to purchase and use “verification software” to check voter’s absentee ballot signatures before accepting them. This would go into effect July 1, 2024. 

She said the signatures the office has on file sometimes come from the DMV. 

“And those are electronic signatures, right?” LaVere said. “And whenever I think about checking out at the checkout, you have to sign, and I just do like an S and a bunch of squiggles. I never sign it the way I actually would sign a piece of paper.”

Much of Senate Bill 747 takes aim at absentee mail-in voting, which Republicans tend to be less in favor of and want to impose more restrictions on. Historically, more Democrats vote via absentee. 

The law eliminates the state’s three day “grace period” post-Election Day for postmarked ballots to make it into the hands of election officials. After being made available 60 days prior to the election, the mail-in ballots would need to reach the office by the time polls close on Election Day to be counted.  

Upon the passage of this provision, North Carolina would join 30 states that require absentee ballots to be delivered at some point on Election Day, a justification for the rule change for Republicans. 

A handful of states have earlier deadlines — usually the day before — while 21 states (excluding North Carolina) allow ballots to be counted if postmarked on or before Election Day. The deadline timeframe ranges from the day after Election Day to two weeks post-election; some only specify the ballots need to be received before canvass.

“Every election has to have a deadline,” Newton said on Wednesday. “There is no deadline better understood than Election Day.” 

Democratic senators stated the change will punish voters for things out of their control — mail delays caused by errors, natural disasters, and understaffing. 

“We have never in North Carolina forced anyone to vote early,” Marcus said. “We’ve always said you can have up to and including Election Day to make your final decisions. And that’s because things change — news breaks, people change their minds, information comes to light at the very last minute. I think it is un-American to force anyone, particularly those who rely on absentee ballots — the disabled, elderly, college students — to force them to vote early. And not just a day or two early, but maybe as much as what? A week?” 

The bill also requires an unspecified “two-factor authentication” to receive an absentee ballot, going into effect July 1, 2024. 

Those looking to register and vote on the same day will need to require proof of address. If not done, the ballot will be marked provisional and counted only upon verification of address voter provides proof of address — ID, utility bill — before canvass.

LaVere said that addition would most likely result in more provisional ballots, and depending on the number, the office might need to hire an additional staff member.  

Boards of elections would need to include additional documentation of absentee ballots in its reports to the state under S.B. 747, including how many people attempted to vote in person after accepting an absentee ballot. The office will also need to keep a log of non-relatives who assist voters with their ballot at the polling site. 

The legislation allows anyone in the county, rather than precinct, to challenge an absentee ballot and charges the State Bureau of Investigation to probe election-related felonies. 

The bill would bar private money donations from use by local election offices — something Republicans have been pushing for with more fervor since 2020. That year the Center for Tech and Civic Like CTCL, funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, distributed $350 million to local election offices. Many states in turn passed laws spurning private money. 

New Hanover County used a portion of that money — $59,854 — to pay hazard pay to one-stop officials.

The Brunswick County elections office received $67,000 of those funds, and it is also a member of the CTCL’s offshoot — not funded by Zuckerberg — the Alliance for Election Excellence. The county commissioners have already tried to influence the board to terminate the agreement — of which has only yielded $2,000 reimbursed travel expenses and networking opportunities. But Brunswick Board of Elections voted 3-2 to reject the request. 

The passage of S.B. 749 would make 3-2 decisions obsolete. 

The bill reduces county boards of election membership from five to four members. Right now, the state board appoints four members, while the governor selects the fifth member and chair. Under this bill, the speaker of the House, president pro tempore of the Senate and the minority leaders of each chamber each will select one appointee.

A similar setup is proposed at the state board of elections. Instead of five members appointed by the governor, eight members would be appointed by each of the General Assembly representatives.

The bill’s sponsors described the bill would ensure parties work together; Democratic committee members said it will drive election leaders to deadlock.

The two leading political parties in the county will be able to submit a list of names to the state, but the General Assembly does not have to choose from the list. Board vacancies would be filled by the legislature; if out of session, the position would be filled by either the House speaker or president pro tempore, currently held by Republicans. 

The state executive director would still be recommended by the state board and approved by the state board; however, if the position remains vacant for more than 30 days after the board is installed, or a former director leaves, the director will be picked by the General Assembly. 

The state board would also be transferred from under the governor to the secretary of state, effective July, 2024.

For county boards, county commissioners would be charged with appointing the director — a concern for many, according to LaVere. 

“If we ever had a situation where a county elections director was at odds with their county commissioners for, you know, any number of reasons — funding, voting equipment — those are just a few that I could think of, I could see that being something that might tamp down what an elections director believes they should be taking action, or they might be fearful about what the repercussions would be.”

The two bills were reported favorable by the elections committee and now head to the Senate rules committee. 


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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