By Julie Havlak
Carolina Journal News Service
Raleigh — Republicans on Tuesday, June 2, amended a bill to tighten oversight of absentee ballots and address possible voter fraud in the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee.
House Bill 1169 would make it easier to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. It would ban all-mail elections and prohibit the State Board of Elections from sending unrequested absentee ballots. It would also appropriate millions in federal coronavirus relief funds and matching federal money from the Help America Vote Act.
Republicans moved to amend the bill to ramp up oversight and investigations into online absentee ballot harvesting. The amendments were passed despite concerns of some Democrats, who said the revisions would burden the State Board of Elections with additional costs.
The amended bill will head to the Senate and Appropriations and Base Budget Committee.
The amended bill would require counties to report overvotes and undervotes, or provide an explanation to the State Board of Elections if they failed to submit the data. Counties would have to track the number of provisional ballots — the fail-safe voting offered to voters whose qualifications are questioned. The bill would require the elections board to investigate computer networks that made more than 10 requests for absentee ballots.
Republicans and Democrats clashed over the amendments’ relevance to the pandemic.
Democrats objected that they had only 10 minutes to review the amendments and called for more input from the State Board of Elections. They also said the amendments weren’t related to the coronavirus pandemic.
The elections board was not aware of the amendments added to the bill, but it plans to review the amendments and continue bipartisan work on the bill, board spokesman Pat Gannon said.
“It would require investigations into every library across our state. That’s a lot of investigations,” said Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg. “This is an awfully big burden to put on our State Board of Elections to be chasing these red herrings across the state without any evidence that there’s ballot harvesting.”
Republicans cited the voter fraud scandal during 2018 in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. The state had to call a new election after a Republican political operative and several associates faced charges of allegedly collecting and falsifying absentee ballots to flip a congressional race.
“Ballot harvesting is not some theoretical, might have happened, whatever else,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Madison. “Someone needs to look into that, and that someone is the Board of Elections.”
H.B. 1169 would temporarily reduce the number of required witnesses to cast an absentee ballot from two people to one person. But witnesses would have to provide their printed name and address. It would become a Class 1 felony for any state employee to knowingly send or deliver any unrequested absentee ballots. The changes would expire in December 2020.
In normal times, only 5 percent of voters cast mail ballots, but lawmakers say they expect to see that number spike with public health concerns over virus spread.
Republicans also changed the selection process for the multipartisan teams who go into nursing homes to help residents vote.
Current law prohibits nursing home staff from helping residents cast absentee ballots. The amendment would not waive this prohibition, but it would require both at least one member of an area’s two major political parties to join the multipartisan team that helps residents vote.
Lawmakers considered requiring coronavirus testing for team members after Marcus asked to consider waiving restrictions on nursing home staff. Instead, the bill would require the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to develop guidance for multipartisan teams to protect voters in nursing homes, hospitals, and other congregate living situations.
“I don’t like the idea of … outside people coming and bringing those germs and contamination,” Marcus said. “Why are we not thinking about the safety of people who are inside nursing homes?”