Emergency elections order requires masks, more early voting sites
Posted July 17, 2020 5:00 p.m. EDT
Updated July 20, 2020 4:56 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — The state elections director issued an emergency order Friday requiring poll workers to wear masks and setting new minimums for early voting locations in a social distancing effort in North Carolina's November elections.
The order requires at least one early voting location per 20,000 registered voters. That may mean a dramatic uptick in voting locations open in the weeks before the Nov. 3 election, though county boards of election can apply for waivers if they can serve voters with fewer locations without causing long lines, the order states.
Senate Republicans immediately questioned the order's legality and said the rule on early voting locations would require many more locations in urban areas dominated by Democrats than in rural areas where Republicans live.
"How is it fair or equitable for voters of one party to be able to walk down the street to vote early while voters of another party will need to drive for miles and miles to vote early?" Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, co-chairman of the Senate Elections committee, said in a statement.
House Rules Chairman David Lewis, who plays a large role in writing state election law, was more complimentary, though he questioned the cost of some of the order's measures and said federal funds recently set aside by the legislature should be used to reimburse county governments.
“There are many admirable things about this order, such as the standards of cleaning and other methods of ensuring that in-person voting is both safe and accessible," Lewis, R-Harnett, said in a statement. "I appreciate that the early voting hours must be uniform, so that no partisan games are played with the voting sites."
The order requires election officials to wear face coverings, and it says counties must make masks available to voters who don't bring their own. It does not require voters to wear masks.
The order also calls for frequent cleaning, backup plans if voting locations must close and social distancing, including "appropriate markings and providing appropriate barriers, including barriers between elections officials and voters at check-in."
State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell said in a release that people have to be able to vote without "without unnecessary risk to their health." Her order notes the long Election Day wait times in Georgia during primary elections earlier this year.
“If we do not take these measures, we risk much longer lines at voting sites and greater possibility of the spread of the coronavirus,” Brinson Bell said. “These are not acceptable risks in this important election year, when we expect turnout to be high.”
The order also requires county boards of election to open early voting sites for at least 10 hours on the weekends of Oct. 17-18 and Oct. 24-25. The order allows for earlier open times and later closing times than in normal years, saying sites can open before 8 a.m. and close after 7:30 p.m.
A county's early voting sites would generally have to have uniform hours, though, keeping to a legislative edict the General Assembly passed in recent years.
The one-site-per-20,000-voter rule may require counties to open and staff more locations than they were planning to. Wake County Board of Elections member Gerry Cohen said on Twitter that the rule would require Wake County to have 38 sites, and he doubted the board could find and staff that many. The board recently adopted a plan with 20 sites.
Wake County and others can apply to Brinson Bell for a waiver if their plan "is sufficient to serve the voting population, maintain social distancing and reduce the likelihood of long lines," the order states.
Hise said the late Friday afternoon announcement from a board controlled by a Democratic majority "should raise red flags" and that it's "an open question as to whether this order is even legal."
The details of North Carolina's election rules remain in flux. There are at least nine lawsuits pending over various state election procedures, including a federal case scheduled for a hearing next week.
Democracy North Carolina is a lead plaintiff in that suit, and Advocacy Director Alissa Ellis said in a statement Friday that the measures in Brinson Bell's order "fall far short of what is necessary."
The group wants to leave voter registration open for longer this year, ease absentee ballot rules and add secure drop boxes to election offices so absentee ballots can be delivered without voters having to enter the office or rely on the mail.