Raleigh, N.C. — The state Senate on Wednesday approved proposals that would make it easier for third-party and unaffiliated candidates to get on ballots in state elections and make it harder to keep polling places open after disruptions.
State and county boards of elections often extend voting hours at polling places that opened late or experienced technical difficulties that forced them to close for a while on Election Day. That was the case in several Durham County precincts last November, for example, when a software glitch forced them to switch to manual check-in for voters, and they then had to shut down operations for brief periods when they ran out of the paper forms.
Late returns from Durham County that night vaulted Democratic candidate Roy Cooper past Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in the gubernatorial race, a lead he never relinquished.
"It seemed like it created an unfair advantage for the people in Durham," Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, said Wednesday. "A lot of people were upset."
Brock's Senate Bill 486, dubbed the Uniform Voting Hours Act, states that voting hours won't be extended past 7:30 p.m. at any precinct unless they are extended for every precinct statewide.
"We have a set time from 6:30 in the morning to 7:30 in the evening that the state should abide by. All precincts in the state should abide by those times," he said. "We're basically sending the signal, the cutoff time is the cutoff time."
People in line to vote at 7:30 p.m. are allowed by law to cast their ballots, no matter how long the line is, but Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said the bill effectively shuts down all attempts to extend voting hours for other reasons.
"I think this will have a negative or adverse impact on the ability of counties to go out and get extended hours when they experience problems because they know they'll have to burden the entire state," McKissick said. "You really want to allow those voters that were inconvenienced to have time to come back to that precinct to vote."
The bill passed the Senate 34-15 and heads to the House.
Meanwhile, Brock also sponsored Sen. Bill 656, the Electoral Freedom Act of 2017, which lowers the threshold for third parties to register in the state and for unaffiliated candidates to get their names on ballots.
Previously, people seeking to form a political party had to garner signatures equal to 2 percent of the voter turnout in the most recent gubernatorial election, with at least 200 from each of four congressional districts. That would be close to 100,000 signatures based on the 2016 election.
The bill would change that to 10,000 signatures of registered voters, with at least 200 from three different congressional districts.
As for unaffiliated candidates, the 2 percent threshold for ballot access would fall to 5,000 signatures for a statewide office and from 4 percent to 3 percent of registered voters in a district for legislative seats and county offices.
"We need to get more people involved in the process," Brock said.
The bill passed 49-0.
The Senate likewise voted 49-0 to approve a third Brock bill setting the date of North Carolina's primary elections as the Tuesday after the first Monday in March. The primary had been held in May until last year, when lawmakers pushed it to mid-March to gain a higher profile in the presidential race.