Thursday, July 18, 2024

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

Brunswick County Board of Elections Executive Director Sara LaVere said she didn’t have an exact amount in mind needed for the voter ID rollout in Brunswick County. New paperwork has to be issued due to the law, and absentee ballots and other forms must be ready at least a month before voting begins. (Port City Daily/File)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. – When North Carolina’s voter ID law went into effect after a four-year legal battle, the rollout opened up a new series of questions for both voters and election authorities.

READ MORE: As the voter ID law goes into effect, opinions vary on future impact

How would implementation of the new law be funded? How would voters be educated on the legislation, if at all? Were the local boards of elections prepared?

The answers to these questions are a bit of a mixed bag as polls open in October for municipal elections around the tri-county region. 

Brunswick County Board of Elections Executive Director Sara LaVere said her office was, frankly, not prepared for the changes.

State voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring IDs to vote in 2018. The General Assembly followed with Senate Bill 824 to codify the legislation. A lawsuit was filed to block the law shortly after, leading the state Supreme Court to uphold a December 2022 Wake County ruling that the law was unconstitutional because it disenfranchised minority voters.

However, a new conservative majority on the court reversed the prior ruling in Holmes v. Moore on April 28, setting the stage for a new era of voting in North Carolina.

LaVere told Port City Daily she would have requested more money from the Brunswick County commissioners had she anticipated the court’s ruling.

Her office will be operating on a fiscal year 2024 budget of $1,444,333, about $400,000 less than the requested amount, but nearly $250,000 more than last year.

LaVere said the increase request came from the expectation of a busier election cycle in 2024. North Carolina is one of the few states that has a gubernatorial election during a presidential election year.

“There are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to funding elections,” LaVere said. “Laws change, feeders change, and that usually comes at a moment’s notice.”

The 2023 election season also has become complicated. LaVere, like other board of election directors, is awaiting guidance from the North Carolina State Board of Elections on how to prepare for the voter ID law, including educating administrative staff and poll workers and, most importantly, informing the public.

The State BOE has not formally passed its rules to execute the new requirement; it met at the end of May to hash out a plan. It must give the public ample time to give feedback and will hold a hearing on June 19. (Comments are accepted online here, by emailing or sending comments via snail mail: Rulemaking Coordinator, PO Box 27255, Raleigh, NC 27611-7255.)

Also unclear is how much funding the state will provide to assist with the voter ID process — or if it will offer any help at all. PCD reached out to the state to ask about the amount of money or resources it anticipates to provide counties; no one responded by press.

However, according to a letter sent to the General Assembly May 12, signed by State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell, the state board requested $6.5 million from the General Assembly through the 2024 election.

The costs would cover:

  • Educating the public and preparing 100 county boards and 25,000 poll workers for photo ID implementation
  • Three statewide postcard mailings to voters
  • A targeted mailing to voters lacking photo ID
  • Paid advertising campaign to reach the State’s 7.2 million voters
  • County photo ID printing and secure photo database
  • Training and materials for the nearly 3,000 statewide voting sites

“While I understand that there are many competing priorities this session, as there are in every session, I ask that you prioritize the unique role the State Board of Elections plays in building confidence in our government, supporting our counties, and safeguarding the right of North Carolinians to vote in fair and accessible elections in 2023 and 2024,” Brinson Bell wrote.

The House’s budget proposal, $3.5 million, was significantly less than what she asked for. The Senate’s proposed budget doesn’t offer additional funding — and even cuts two positions at the state board. Financial help has yet to be agreed upon by legislators.

New paperwork must be issued due to the law change, and absentee ballots and other forms must be ready at least a month before voting begins.

Additional to the absentee ballot packets for the 2023 election season are three envelopes. Inside the packet is a return envelope to put the ballot in and another to ensure security for a photocopy of the voter’s ID, or to include an ID Exception Form explaining why one does not have an ID.

Those items carry additional expenses, as Brunswick’s BOE has to purchase packets under the law. LaVere said she didn’t have an exact amount in mind needed for the rollout in Brunswick County, but also has to hire and train new staff and educate existing employees.

For example, how the election boards identify whether an ID is valid is one of the proposed rules the state board still has to vote upon and coach the boards on.

LaVere noted increased expenses may lead to reductions locally, including for advertising and potentially replacing a part-time outreach assistant. She indicated she would take over those duties if it came to it.

“That might be something we have to look at cutting after the primary to staff a polling place, if necessary,” she said. “Early voting is quite expensive, so we might look at cutting the number of days. These are things that are well on the horizon.”

There are 17 early voting days in North Carolina, though each county has the choice of how many to allow, if any. In the 2021 municipal elections, Brunswick County early voters cast 3,116 ballots, which was roughly 17% of the registered voting population.

Historically more Democrats than Republicans vote early, according to a Gallup Poll. Brunswick County, traditionally conservative-leaning, had 850 Democrats, seven Libertarians, 1,175 Republicans and 1,054 unaffiliated voters in its 2021 municipal elections.

A 2019 study from Five Thirty Eight, noted early voting doesn’t guarantee increased voter turnout, nor does it decrease it. 

LaVere confirmed she will not be using funding from Brunswick BOE’s controversial partnership with the U.S Alliance for Election Excellence to help with needs for the voter ID law. Commissioners issued in March a unanimous resolution condemning the relationship and private money in elections.

Regardless, Brunswick’s BOE voted in April to continue its partnership with the center-left (though officially nonpartisan) collaborative; it received a $67,000 grant from the organization to fund temporary employees to facilitate absentee ballots.

One Brunswick County Commissioner told PCD it would consider assisting the board of elections in a funding shortfall but only under extraordinary circumstances.

“Let’s say we had something no one foresaw,” District 2 Commissioner Marty Cooke said. “Let’s say we had something like some new legislation that would require the acquisition of new equipment that wasn’t known. Then that would be something [the commissioners] would have to look at at that time.”

Free voter IDs are to be offered at the DMV but also from county BOEs. In 2018, when the law was first voted on, equipment was purchased, Brinson Bell told NC Newsline in May, but it now requires technological updates.

LaVere confirmed the Brunswick BOE does have equipment that needs to be updated.

New Hanover’s BOE is getting $1,703,115 from the county in fiscal year 2023 and 2024, about $275,000 more than last year. Pender County’s BOE is receiving $406,350. 

PCD also reached out to the directors of both New Hanover and Pender counties’ boards of elections to ask about plans to implement the voter ID law and how it affects the bottom line. Pender would not go on the record and New Hanover County refused to answer questions on the topic, instead pointing PCD to the state board.

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