House Bill 1169 makes it easier to request an absentee ballot and to vote that ballot, relaxing a state requirement that voters get two people or a notary public to sign their paperwork if they want to vote by mail.
The bill would also create a new online portal voters can use to request ballots, and it has millions of dollars in it to help election officials prepare for the November general election.
This bill cleared the North Carolina House last month 116-3, a rare bipartisan vote for a major elections bill.
But Tuesday evening, a handful of progressive advocacy groups sounded the alarm, urging people to oppose the bill. The apparent problem lay in language that would add a new type of photo ID to the list of IDs accepted at the polls: Cards issued to people on various public assistance programs.
The state's voter ID requirement, added to the North Carolina Constitution in 2018 after years of back and forth and a court case that found Republican lawmakers used the issue to target minority voters, is on hold while two new court cases run their course.
One of the reasons cited in a judge's decision to suspend the requirement was that the Republican-controlled legislature declined to include public assistance IDs when they wrote the state's voter ID law. Democrats fear the addition of public assistance IDs now was a last-minute attempt to clear voter ID with the courts in time for the November elections.
"You're taking shots again," Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "You're taking shots again at African-Americans, is what you're doing.
"This bill may have some benefits," Robinson added. "But you put in the most ... you put in the ugliest language that messes up what could have been a decent bill."
This puts Senate Democrats in an odd position: Trying to remove language on public assistance IDs from legislation their colleagues in the House had already approved by a wide margin.
Republicans tabled that effort, along with several other amendments Democrats put forward to alter the bill. One failed amendment would have extended this year's registration deadline, given counties more flexibility on early voting hours and had the state pre-pay postage on absentee ballot envelopes.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, state officials expect a massive increase this year in by-mail voting, and state Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, said requiring postage "amounts to a modern day poll tax."
Republican lawmakers have said the U.S. Post Office will deliver ballots even if they don't have the full postage on them. A Post Office spokesman confirmed that to WRAL News this week.
In the end, the Senate voted for the unamended bill 35-12. Twelve Democrats voted against it, and eight for it, including Chaudhuri. All Republicans present voted for it.
The chamber will have to vote again before the bill moves forward. Republicans agreed to consider a proposal Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton, made on the bill Wednesday, but the language wasn't finalized in time.
That vote will likely come Thursday, which will send the bill back to the House. Another House vote is needed because the Senate tweaked the bill's language after the House's initial approval.
The legal team behind that suit has already called this bill inadequate and said their suit will continue regardless of whether it becomes law.
Among other things, the bill forbids state election officials from moving to an all-mail election, and it makes it a felony to knowingly send an absentee ballot to someone who didn't request it.
The State Board of Elections never asked for an all-mail election. In fact, Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell said repeatedly that it would be impossible, logistically, to do so this year.
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