Democrats’ bills would expand voting access in state

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 26, 2021

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

RALEIGH — North Carolina Senate Democrats will soon offer bills to expand access to voting — a contrast to a new proposal by Republican colleagues on absentee voting that would restrict it, the Democrats said on Thursday.

The Democrats announced they plan to file legislation that would make voter registration of eligible citizens automatic when they turn 18, permit same-day registration on Election Day and make that day a holiday. Other measures would combat voter intimidation, make online registration more accessible and keep in place a nine-day window in which absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day could be received by counties and still count.

“These ideas are not new ideas, but these ideas should be heard because every North Carolinian should have the freedom to vote equally,” Sen. Jay Chaudhuri of Wake County, the deputy minority leader, said at a Legislative Building news conference.

Current law limits to three days the time in which absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day or a primary elections must be received to be counted. But a legal agreement in September between the State Board of Elections and a union-affiliated group extended the receipt date for the fall election from Nov. 6 to Nov. 12.

Republican legislative leaders, who also were parties to the lawsuit, said they were kept out of the loop of the “secret settlement” and challenged it in court. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately declined to block the extended deadline.

Chaudhuri said Senate Democrats want to make this nine-day window permanent in state law. Republicans — the majority in the chamber — filed a bill last week that would move up the receipt of absentee ballots to 5 p.m. on Election Day or the primary election date to be counted.

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Wake County said pulling back the deadline is the wrong idea because voters have no control over how long it will take for their ballot envelopes to reach elections offices, particularly with U.S. Postal Service delays. Thousands of ballots that arrived after Election Day in 2020 were counted.

“Election Day is Election Day,” Blue said, so allowing people to drop their ballots in the mail on that day “guarantees people’s right to participate in the election.”

The state board’s executive director was grilled this week by Senate Republicans about the settlement in a two-hour committee hearing. GOP senators filed a bill  on Thursday that would require approval by the House speaker and Senate leader of any legal settlement of litigation challenging a state law and in which they are parties before the attorney general could formally enter into it. The attorney general’s office helped negotiate the absentee ballot settlement last year.

Despite the legal fight and the pandemic, North Carolina witnessed record turnout, with 5.5 million ballot cast and few reports of voting problems.