When state lawmakers return to Raleigh this week, they are expected to introduce a stand-alone elections bill that will have huge consequences for North Carolina voters. That legislation should be their first and most pressing concern. With the election barely more than six months away, time to print ballots, train poll workers, plan logistics and purchase protective gear for poll workers and voters is rapidly running through the hourglass.
The first order of business should be to allocate roughly $4.5 million needed to match federal grants totaling $22.5 million available to help cover additional costs of holding an election during a pandemic. The grants include almost $11 million from the CARES Act passed in March and another $11.6 million from the Help America Vote Act passed in December 2019.
Depending on the severity of the pandemic in the fall, mail-in absentee voting could increase from less than 5 percent to as much as 40 percent, according to some estimates. The cost of mail-in ballots varies from county to county, according to an investigative report by North Carolina Public Press, but postage, paper and printing will increase election costs, as will masks for poll workers and voters, sanitizing kits and other items to help keep everyone safe.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the White House Covid-19 task force, has predicted a resurgence in the fall and North Carolina needs to be prepared.
That means lawmakers should do their part to make voting easier while continuing to guard against fraud. North Carolina already does a number of things right. Any registered voter can request an absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse. Voters also have the option of one-stop in-person early voting at specified locations in their county of residence. When it comes to security, North Carolina requires voting machines to have paper ballots, which should be in use in all 100 counties by the November election, making the machines much harder to hack.
But voters confined at home without access to a computer could find it challenging to access a State Absentee Ballot Request Form, which is available on the Board of Elections website and must be filled out to request a mail-in ballot. Many states allow voters to request a mail-in ballot by phone, and while that would cost more in staff time, it could be done safely by requiring the same information the written form requests.
North Carolina is also one of only a handful of states that require either two witnesses or a notary public to certify an absentee ballot. Most North Carolinians live in homes with no more than two adults, meaning most sequestered at home won’t have more than one available witness, and those who live alone won’t have any. Eighty percent of states don’t have any witness requirements, and North Carolina should join them.
None of the five states that send every registered voter a vote-at-home ballot (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington) require witness or notary signatures on returned ballots. Colorado’s system is often held up as a national model and it is among the states with the highest voter turnout (60 percent vs. 48 percent nationally in the 2018 midterm elections). Colorado relies on maintaining accurate mailing lists and signature verification to insure against fraud and despite its high turnout only .0027 percent of ballots were even suspicious enough to investigate.
North Carolina already uses identity verification (address, birthday, last four digits of a Social Security number, driver’s license number, etc.), which an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice listed as one of the most effective ways states can prevent mail-in ballot fraud. Others were barcodes on ballots, mail barcodes that allow tracking through the U.S. mail so voters and elections officials can tell whether ballots were delivered, secure drop-off locations and drop boxes, and post-election audits.
As for the incidence of fraud, despite claims by President Trump that people cheat when they use mail-in ballots, the overwhelming evidence is that they don’t. And a huge plus for mail-in ballots is they can’t be hacked. It should be noted Trump votes by mail himself.
In addition to making it easier to vote by mail, lawmakers also need to ensure the Board of Elections has the resources to hire and train enough poll workers to increase, rather than reduce, the number of polling stations.
Poll workers tend to be older and many who have manned polls in the past may be reluctant to risk contracting Covid-19 and spreading it to other family members. But more poll workers, not fewer, will be needed to insure enough polling locations so long lines like those we saw during the Wisconsin primary April 7 don’t force people to choose between getting sick and exercising their most fundamental right.
Nothing lawmakers do during the remainder of this short session is more urgent or more consequential than ensuring the integrity of the November election and the ability of voters to cast their ballots without risking their health.