Q&A: NC may change mail-in voting, voter registration and more. What you need to know

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Several laws for voters and elections in North Carolina could soon change, after the Republican-led N.C. Senate voted them through Wednesday and sent them to the House, where they likely stand to find support as well.

One deals with mail-in voting, moving up the deadline for ballots to be sent back in. One bans outside groups from giving grants to counties for election funding, which is uncommon but did happen in 2020 for pandemic-related needs. The third would expand online voter registration and create a mobile unit to bring people IDs, if they don’t have one already, which could be used to vote if the state’s currently blocked voter ID law is allowed to take effect.

Here are answers to some questions, since the bills are complicated — and opponents say that for some of them, there’s more than what meets the eye.

Q: What happened on Wednesday in NC?

All the votes in the Senate were strictly along party lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. That was perhaps a surprise to GOP leaders, who had split a single election bill up into three separate bills because they believed some of the issues could gain enough Democratic support to defeat — or avoid — a potential veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Sen. Warren Daniel, a Morganton Republican and bill sponsor, previously said it was done “based on our conversations with some members of the Democrat caucus.”

The hoped-for support from Democrats didn’t materialize in the Senate, but it could in the House, where the three bills will now move forward in the coming weeks.

Mail-in voting changes

Q: What would be the new deadline?

Senate Bill 326 would move up the deadline for mail-in voting to Election Day, eliminating the current three-day grace period which allows for people to wait until Election Day to finish and mail their ballots.

Republicans say it would make people trust elections but Democrats say it will result in thousands of legitimate ballots being thrown out.

Q: What is the motivation behind this?

Democrats and voting rights activists have repeatedly tried to tie these bills to restrictive voting laws that have been pursued nationwide in light of former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 election was tainted by widespread voter fraud. Some Republicans have referenced Trump’s mail-in voting theories in their support of the plan, but other Republicans have sought to distance the plan from Trump’s rhetoric. During Wednesday’s debate Daniel referenced how North Carolina was under a national spotlight as it waited to announce whether Trump or Biden had won here, but he also said his main inspiration was a controversial legal settlement the state elections board made in 2020 with liberal activists who had sued, which extended the normal three-day grace period to 12 days.

Q: Do other states do this?

A: It’s nearly an even split. North Carolina is one of 21 states, plus Washington, D.C., that let ballots come in after Election Day. That means most states, 29 of them, do have the Election Day deadline Republicans want North Carolina to have. Those are mostly red states but do include some blue states. Democratic President Joe Biden’s longtime home of Delaware does it, Republicans here have been fond of reminding their Democratic colleagues when they call the proposal a voter suppression bill.

Q: If this becomes law, when should I mail in my ballot to be sure it counts?

A: At least three days before the election, if not a week or more. It’s hard to say, especially if there are problems with the mail at election time in the future, like there were last year.

Q: Who votes by mail and will be affected by this?

A: It appears North Carolina’s rising numbers of unaffiliated voters could be most at risk of having their votes thrown out in the future if this change becomes law — perhaps explained by them taking longer to make up their minds than voters who are members of a political party.

Historically, Republicans tend to vote by mail more than anyone else. But they also tend to get their ballots in the mail earlier. Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer provided The News & Observer with data showing that in 2016, for example, Republicans cast 40% of the state’s mail-in ballots but only 32% of the ballots that came in after the election. Democrats were equal in both categories, but unaffiliated voters stuck out as having 38% of the late-arriving absentee ballots even though they only cast 29% of the total.

Q: Didn’t more Democrats vote by mail in 2020, though?

A: Yes, but that was largely due to coronavirus and the fact that prominent conservative figures including then-President Donald Trump downplayed the risks of COVID-19 at the same time they also spread unfounded claims about fraud in mail-in voting.

However, the tendency for Republicans to mail their ballots early also reversed in 2020. GOP voters were the most likely to cast late-arriving ballots last year, Bitzer’s data shows. So the big question is whether future elections will carry on the same trends as 2020, or if they will go back to the nearly polar opposite statistics of years prior.

Ban outside election funding

Q: What’s proposed for election funding?

Senate Bill 725 would ban local governments — which are in charge of paying for elections — from getting any outside help, like from charitable grants. It’s the bill Republicans had previously pointed to as having the most support at the legislature, and they have frequently asked Democrats to imagine if they’d be OK with conservative donors like the Koch family getting involved in the 2024 elections.

It remains to be seen if that argument will hold more sway with Democrats in the House, or with Cooper, than it did with the Senate Democrats who all voted against the bill.

Q: Are elections typically privately funded?

A: No. During the 2020 elections in North Carolina, statewide election officials as well as a number of county boards of elections applied for grant funding from nonprofit organizations to pay for coronavirus-related needs. The money went toward purchasing single-use pens for use at polling sites, face masks and other personal protective equipment, helping pay poll workers, and funding direct mailers to all North Carolina households with information about absentee voting and in-person voting. Even then, the vast majority of election costs were still paid for by taxpayers. That’s how it has always worked.

Q: How much private election aid flowed into North Carolina in 2020?

A: Several million dollars. The State Board of Elections applied for and received $1 million to pay for 6 million single-use pens that were distributed to all 100 counties; $2.28 million to provide bonuses to more than 10,000 workers who staffed one-stop early voting sites; and $1.4 million to send two direct mailings to every household across the state with information on absentee voting and safety measures at the polls. Several counties also applied for grants from different organizations to hire poll workers and supply PPE.

Q: Why ban private funding?

A: The bills’ supporters say it creates the appearance of impropriety even if the money is used for ostensibly nonpartisan purposes, like the COVID-19-related uses for the money in 2020. One of the bill’s primary sponsors, Republican Sen. Paul Newton from Cabarrus County, said last week that elections are a “uniquely governmental function,” and should be closed to private funding.

Q: Who is opposed to the bill, and why?

A: Voting rights activists say that without identifying alternate sources of supplemental funding, this bill would leave elections underfunded. They’ve argued that since the pandemic is ongoing, it is premature to assume upcoming elections will not need the same emergency funds that were required to make voting safe in 2020. Some Democrats in the legislature have said if the state is going to ban local governments from getting outside funds, it should at least provide some extra taxpayer funding. Republicans like Newton have countered that Democrats are “assuming a pandemic every year” and additional costs “should not be a yearly occurrence.”

Voter ID, online registration

Q: What’s being done related to voter ID?

Senate Bill 724 would create a mobile unit to bring people identification cards that would be acceptable for voting if the state’s currently blocked voter ID law is allowed to go back into place by state and federal courts. It also has a provision that Republicans say would expand access to online voter registration, by requiring the elections board to offer that in addition to the Division of Motor Vehicles. Voting rights activists say it would actually be harmful, not helpful.

Q: Why create a mobile unit to get people IDs at home?

A: Republicans say IDs are important for many things other than voting, and they want to make sure everyone can get one. There may also be a legal motive: One of the lawsuits against the state’s newest voter ID law is called Holmes v. Moore. Moore is House Speaker Tim Moore, and Holmes is Jabari Holmes, a disabled voter. His mother and caretaker testified at trial that taking him to get an ID to vote would cost an inordinate amount of time and money. A judge might see that as a poll tax, which is unconstitutional. It’s unclear what would happen to that lawsuit, however, if the state were to create a mobile unit to bring IDs to people at no cost.

Q: Why are voting rights activists concerned about expanding online voter registration? Isn’t that something they want?

A: There’s a fear the bill is a Trojan horse of sorts. People can already register to vote online at the DMV. Even if they go to the elections board website for it, they’ll be directed to the right place. Republicans say there’s no reason the elections board shouldn’t be able to do it on its own. But opponents have said that to register to vote online, the state needs a copy of your signature on file. That’s why it’s done by the DMV, since everyone with a driver’s license has given the DMV their signature. But the elections board doesn’t necessarily have signatures on file. So opponents say if the bill passes, the board will either be forced to turn down everyone who tries to register, or will have to somehow get the DMV database into their own systems. But there’s no money in the bill to accomplish that. Republicans have said they might consider funding for it at a later date.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at link.chtbl.com/underthedomenc or wherever you get your podcasts.

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