North Carolina Moves Ahead With Legislative Assault on Absentee Ballots

Here we go again. Following in the footsteps of states like Georgia, Florida, and Arizona, North Carolina is moving full speed ahead on legislation deceptively entitled the “Election Integrity Act.” Like similarly titled bills in those other states, it is designed to make it harder to vote, particularly for voters of color. The measure, S.B. 326, was approved by the state senate’s Redistricting and Elections Committee on Wednesday. It’s now heading towards a vote by the full state senate and is expected to be considered by the house as early as next week.

It is part of a nationwide, GOP-led backlash to robust turnout by Black, brown, and Indigenous voters in 2020. Like similar bills, North Carolina’s targets voting by mail, which some 1 million North Carolinians relied on to cast their ballots in 2020. S.B. 326 would make this harder by reducing the time to request and return an absentee ballot. Had its provisions been in place last year, tens of thousands of applications and ballots would have been rejected.

North Carolina voters, especially voters of color, have long been targets of legislative voter suppression. I stood with them as counsel in a successful challenge to a massive voter suppression law that a federal appeals court concluded targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision” in 2016. Voter advocates are not taking this latest assault sitting down either, packing the state senate hearing room to give testimony on S.B. 326.

Unfortunately, many were unable to testify, as the committee waited until 10 minutes before adjournment to bring up this bill. But several advocates were able to speak, including Desmera Gatewood of Democracy North Carolina, who called out the Jim Crow underpinnings of the bill’s “election integrity” frame.

“As a Black person, I’m probably the most qualified to speak to integrity of the ballot process,” she said, pointing to the unending stream of historic and recent barriers directed at voters of color in North Carolina, and calling on lawmakers to abide by the 15th Amendment’s guarantee that the right to vote not be abridged due to race.

But it’s clear that this is exactly what would happen, as S.B. 326 would constrict the mail voting process in North Carolina by reducing the time to request and return an absentee ballot in a way that disproportionately harms voters of color.

Under existing law in place for more than a decade, voters in North Carolina can request an absentee ballot until one week before Election Day. The bill would move that deadline from 7 days before Election Day to 14 days, or two weeks, before Election Day. Because interest increases closer to an election, many voters tend to request ballots in the week eliminated by this bill.

S.B. 326 bill also shortens the window to return a ballot by removing a safeguard allowing absentee ballots to count if they are postmarked by Election Day and received within 3 days after. This grace period — which has been in place since 2009 — means that voters aren’t punished for postal delays beyond their control. S.B. 326 would require all ballots to be received by the election authority by 5 p.m. on Election Day, regardless of when the voter mails it. Voters who complete and get their ballots in the mail by Election Day should have their ballots count just like other voters.

One recent poll found that a majority of North Carolina voters oppose this change. It is important to note that the existing grace period doesn’t hinder the vote count. Election results are not finalized in North Carolina on election night but during the statewide county canvass 10 days later. State election data shows that, excluding military and overseas voters, in 2020, 13,654 ballots were postmarked by Election Day and received within 3 days after. Those ballots would be rejected under this bill.

One recent study by Western Carolina University found that had the request and return restrictions in S.B. 326 been in place in 2020, 31,680 ballots in North Carolina would have been rejected. Had the proposed provisions been in place in 2016, almost 24,000 ballots would have been rejected. The study also found that the rejected ballots would have been disproportionately from African American voters, younger voters, and registered unaffiliated voters, who were all more likely to request ballots during the final week removed by S.B. 326 and more likely to have a ballot that postmarked by Election Day that was received after Election Day.

Worse, the bill contains no funding to educate voters about these changes — changes that are likely to cause confusion among voters accustomed to requesting ballots a week before Election Day and having until Election Day to get them back in the mail. Lawmakers previously saw fit to allocate over $2 million to educate voters about important voting changes.

Without any state funding at all, the burden will then fall to local election authorities, who — outrageously — would also be prohibited by S.B. 326’s provisions from receiving any private funds to help get the voters the information they need.

Wednesday’s committee vote takes this bill closer to approval. Instead of passing a misguided “Election Integrity Act,” North Carolina lawmakers should instead recognize the integrity of the voters they represent and reject this burdensome measure.