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NC elections board wants to make Election Day a holiday because of virus

Posted March 26, 2020 5:03 p.m. EDT
Updated March 26, 2020 6:34 p.m. EDT

 Election sign.

— The State Board of Elections recommended more than a dozen changes to state election laws Thursday in response to COVID-19, including making Election Day a state holiday.

Most of the suggestions stem from an expected uptick in absentee voting by mail. Among other things, state Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell will ask the General Assembly to pay postage on absentee ballots, make it easier to request absentee ballots and to ease witnessing requirements when people vote by mail.

She laid out the requests in a six-page letter.

“We believe the legislative recommendations released today would go a long way toward ensuring safe, accessible elections in 2020,” Brinson Bell said in news release accompanying the letter. “We look forward to continuing to work with the General Assembly to respond to the unprecedented threat facing our elections system at this time.”

Legislative leaders have said they'll consider changes, but the process will have a lot of eyes on it. North Carolina tightened its absentee ballot rules last year after an illegal ballot-harvesting campaign forced a do-over election in the state's 9th Congressional District.

The North Carolina Democratic Party called this week on the legislature to relax some of the new rules, and some of them are targeted in a lawsuit backed by a Democratic law firm.

“We’ll take a serious look at proposals to adjust our elections procedures in response to the crisis," Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, co-chair of the Senate Elections committee, said Thursday. "But what we we’re not going to do is pass a Democratic Party wishlist that includes rolling back the protections we put in place after fraud occurred during the last election cycle."

North Carolina has two elections left this year: A second Republican primary in the 11th Congressional District, which has already been delayed until June 23, and the general election slated for Nov. 3.

Brinson Bell's letter suggests the following changes:

  • Creating a new fund to pay absentee ballot postage.
  • Making Election Day a holiday, which would expand "the potential pool of poll workers to students, teachers and younger individuals." Most poll workers are older and more at risk for serious complications from the COVID-19 virus.
  • Boosting pay for for precinct officials beyond the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
  • Giving local election offices more time to count absentee ballots by letting them count those ballots when they do the canvass, instead of on Election Day. The letter also suggests extending the canvass period from 10 days to 14.
  • Reducing or eliminating the requirement that two people or one notary public witness an absentee ballot. This would be done in the name of social distancing.
  • Letting voters submit absentee ballot requests by fax and email and establishing an online portal for requests as well.
  • Allowing local boards of election to pre-fill voter information on request forms so voters can call and have a pre-filled form sent to them.
  • Given visitor limitations in place at nursing homes, temporarily allow facility employees to assist voters with the absentee voting process. State law forbids this now.
  • Letting voters who don't know their driver's license number, or the last four digits of their Social Security number, include a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document showing their name and address with their absentee ballot request.
  • Eliminate a requirement that a majority of poll workers reside in the precinct they work.
  • Give local boards flexibility for in-person early voting, instead of maintaining a relatively new state law that says, if one early voting site is open, they all must be. The law also requires that sites other than the main county board office be open from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. weekdays.

Joseph Kyzer, spokesman for House Speaker Tim Moore, said a House working group looking at changes needed in the wake of the pandemic will consider Brinson Bell's request, along with others.

"However, any necessary reforms will be narrowly tailored to the current pandemic without undermining the integrity of North Carolina’s elections," Kyzer said via email.

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