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Lawmakers restore last Saturday of early voting, delay ban on touchscreen voting

Posted October 29, 2019 3:09 p.m. EDT
Updated October 29, 2019 6:51 p.m. EDT

— State lawmakers voted Tuesday to restore, long-term, the final Saturday of early voting and passed new absentee ballot fraud protections in an elections bill that also extends the life of soon-to-be-outlawed touchscreen voting machines.

Senate Bill 683, which passed unanimously in the Senate and 111-1 in the House, would give counties that use Direct Recording Electronic voting machines until next summer to replace them. The legislature voted years ago to ban the machines because they don't produce paper ballots, but lawmakers have voted repeatedly to extend the deadline.

This bill, if signed by Gov. Roy Cooper, would allow the machines in the March primaries but not in next year's general elections, including the presidential election.

The State Board of Elections recently approved new machines counties can purchase to replace the aging touchscreen devices, including a new touchscreen option that prints out a paper ballot using a bar code system that has not been without controversy.

The bill also boosts penalties for absentee ballot fraud, a response to shenanigans in the 9th Congressional District last year that led to hearings, a do-over election and an ongoing criminal investigation.

"In light of some of the issues that occurred in 2018, this General Assembly is committed to ending absentee ballot fraud and making our elections more secure," said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett.

That portion of the bill would require voters who want an absentee ballot to write their county board of elections themselves, forbidding people from collecting requests en masse. Requests would have to include some verification of the voter's identity.

It would also make the list of people who request absentee ballots, which is currently public record, secret until after they vote.

"It will take the list of those who have requested an absentee ballot from the board of elections, and it will make that list confidential until a person has turned in the ballot and voted or until Election Day to prevent individuals from being able to go collect those lists and go harvest [the ballots]," said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell.

State law doesn't directly address who is allowed to handle ballot requests, but Lewis said it will now.

"It makes it illegal to sell or attempt to sell, purchase or attempt to purchase, a completed request form – a completed absentee request form – or a voted absentee ballot," Lewis said.

The bill also restores the final Saturday of early voting, something Republican leadership in the General Assembly went back and forth on last year. After passing legislation that did away with the last Saturday, the Republican majority put it back in, but only for the 2018 elections.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said that final Saturday is one of the most popular days with voters.

"Under the old law, it would have been allowed up until 1 p.m., with local options to go up to 5 p.m. if the county board decided to do so," McKissick said. "It will now be uniform throughout all 100 counties to 3 p.m."

The bill also tweaks weekday early voting hours, which have been 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., shifting them to 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Local election officials had said very few people vote early at 7 a.m.

The Saturday voting section would seem to moot part of a lawsuit the Democratic Party filed Monday to restore the last Saturday. But that lawsuit also targets recent GOP changes to early voting hours, arguing that requiring county election boards to keep sites open for long, uniform hours, which boosts staffing costs, pressured local officials to offer fewer voting sites to save money.

The lawsuit seeks to have those changes, approved last year and essentially reiterated in the latest bill, declared unconstitutional, restoring flexibility for the counties.

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