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Analysis

North Carolina Moves Legislation to Make Voting by Mail Harder

The voter suppression bill would likely prevent thousands of mail ballots from being counted, disproportionately affecting people of color and young people.

  • Denise Lieberman
June 10, 2021
NC capitol
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

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.