Senate Bill 747 would likely ensure that thousands of valid ballots are thrown out, prevent boards of election from filling funding gaps, and make it harder for college students to vote.
A record number of North Carolinians voted in the 2020 election, but the state’s 75% voter turnout that year is unlikely to be matched in 2024 if newly-proposed legislation becomes law.
Republican leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly introduced a suite of election bills this month that would make fundamental changes to how North Carolina runs its elections and could make it harder for voters to participate.
Though voter fraud is extremely rare and widespread fraud—the kind that could alter the outcome of an election—is non-existent, Republicans are offering a different narrative, suggesting that voter confidence is in crisis and that big changes are needed to confront imminent dangers to election integrity.
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These new bills, however, have nothing to do with election security, integrity or efficiency, voting rights groups say.
Instead, Senate Bill 747 would ensure that thousands of valid ballots are thrown out, widen funding gaps for necessary election expenses, and make it harder for students and voters of color to register and cast their ballots.
Add to it a voter ID law going into effect this year, and Senate Bill 749, which would overhaul the state’s boards of elections in a way that would likely snarl decision making, and you have a deliberate attempt to suppress the state’s rising voter turnout, the voting groups say.
“These types of legislation have been shown to be targeted on certain groups, poor folks, low income folks, communities of color, and young people,” Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the president of the youth voter group NextGen America said this month in an interview. “And ultimately, a lot of these elections are won by small margins, so if they’re able to keep 1%, 2%, 3% of people from voting, that’s a success story.”
Here’s a look at some of the provisions of Senate Bill 747, which is expected to get a final vote in the General Assembly this summer.
Shortens the Time Frame to Vote by Mail
SB 747 is a big bill with lots of parts, but perhaps its biggest change is ending the three-day grace period for voting by mail, a widely popular provision among voters of both parties.
If this bill passes, mail ballots sent within the United States must arrive by 7:30 p.m. on Election Day in order to be counted. Currently, any ballot that is postmarked on or before Election Day and arrives by 5 p.m. three days after Election Day is counted.
Mail delays were a huge problem in 2020 and remain an issue, especially in rural counties. That three-day period is critical to preventing these sorts of delays from denying people their right to vote.
If this provision had been in effect in 2020, it would have tossed out more than 13,000 valid ballots, and prevented near-zero cases of fraud. Of those valid ballots, 3,819 came from Democrats, 3,759 ballots from Republicans, and 5,929 from unaffiliated voters.
“SB 747 would install harsh new limits on mail-in voting that will effectively toss thousands of valid ballots [that were] delayed by the USPS, natural disasters, or anything beyond the voter’s control,” Sailor Jones of the voting group Common Cause NC said last week.
In pushing for the changes, Republican lawmakers say that voters already have plenty of time to mail their ballots and that establishing Election Day as the final deadline would ease voter confusion and allow the final results to be announced that night, bolstering voter confidence in the elections.
But that’s not how the process works and the bill would hardly guarantee any of that.
Federal law gives extra time for military and overseas ballots, and in 2022, North Carolina had more than 8,500 of these ballots arrive. Also, SB 747 would not change a separate state law establishing a detailed and days-long canvassing process to certify the votes. So any close election would still not be official until several days after Election Day.
The three-day grace period lawmakers now want to end passed with huge bipartisan support in 2009. How huge? Zero Republicans objected then.
Republicans have won every presidential and Senate race in the state under the current rules.
But in the aftermath of the 2020 election—which former president Donald Trump refused to accept the results of and tried to overturn—North Carolina Republicans have become more antagonistic to mail voting and other election rules that make voting easier or more convenient.
The push for these new restrictive voting measures come from the Election Integrity Network (EIN), a group that denies Trump lost the 2020 election. Cleta Mitchell, the founder of the organization and a former Trump advisor, has criticized policies making it easier for college students to vote, and visited North Carolina Republican lawmakers in the week before SB 747 was introduced. Several of its provisions mirror those called for by the EIN.
Another bill introduced Tuesday night also appears to have been inspired by the North Carolina Chapter of the EIN. House Bill 772 would make it easier for partisan poll watchers to wander voting areas, stand within 5-feet of ballot and registration tables, and listen as voters confirm their addresses and other details to poll workers. The observers would not be able to “interfere” with the voting process but they would no longer be barred from communicating with voters, muddying the definition of voter intimidation.
Strips Vital Funding
SB 747 also bars county boards of elections from accepting outside funding to pay for election-related expenses. The bill does not, however, increase state funding.
Republican leaders say that outside funding creates suspicions that something untoward is taking place, but these are not bags of cash passed under tables in dark rooms. They are grants from non-profit organizations specifically designed to help smaller county boards of elections pay for temporary workers and administrative costs.
Both current law and the new bill say that each county board of commissioners must provide all “reasonable” funding that elections officials need, but the actual costs and the amount deemed reasonable by a county commissioner do not always align.
At least 97 counties in North Carolina received supplementary grants to help pay for their elections in 2020, according to a NC Budget and Tax Center report.
Mark Swallow, who has worked as a poll worker in Wake County since the 2020 primaries, spoke against the bill during the public comments period at a recent Senate committee meeting, telling lawmakers that counties may not be able to meet elections deadlines without outside funding.
In an interview after the meeting, Swallow said that workload and staffing needs are immense before, during and directly after any election.
“All the tabulating machines have to be tested for every possible combination and that’s a large number of ballots,” he said. “That takes weeks, and that’s just in preparation for elections.”
Poll workers also have to report the number of ballots received in each precinct.
“There are things like that that occur around the elections that take staff and money and if you don’t fully fund that stuff it’s very difficult to get that back in a timely fashion,” Swallow said.
That means even more delays that would prevent vote totals from being announced with any finality on Election Day.
Far from making the elections process smoother and simpler, as the bill’s supporters claim, SB 747 would burden understaffed and unfunded elections officials with more work that would likely only make the process more confusing.
Complicates Same-Day Registration
Under current law, North Carolinians can register to vote and cast their vote at the same time during the state’s in-person early voting period, as long as they can prove their identity with an ID and proof of address like a utility bill.
SB 747 and the new voting ID requirements would complicate this straight-forward process, especially for college students, one of the biggest groups to utilize same-day registration.
SB 747 says that if your photo ID contains a current address, you can still register and vote with a regular ballot during the early voting period. But while many voters would be able to use their driver’s license, most college student IDs don’t contain an address at all, and a student’s driver’s license would most likely contain their hometown address, not their college address.
In this case, the new bill says, a college student could register but would then have to cast a provisional ballot, one that would have to be verified in a separate process in order to be counted. A current utility bill would no longer be enough to present at the polling site.
Instead, the student would have to make a separate trip to the local board of elections to provide their ID and utility bill to verify their address and identity. Only then would their provisional ballot be counted.
“For students, it’s a huge issue,” Tzintzún Ramirez said. “Young people move, they go to their campus and what if it requires a new ID with that address? So there’s young people [who], where they vote may be different than where they are in the summertime. That can make it incredibly hard and a barrier for young people to vote.
“It’s not by accident, it’s by design,” she added
But even under the best case scenario of good intentions, all these changes reflect “a lack of understanding of the [elections] process,” Carol Moreno-Cifuentes, Policy & Program Manager for the voting-rights group Democracy NC, said in an interview.
“Voting by mail in North Carolina is already pretty restrictive in comparison to some other states,” she said, and the new verification provisions “are not going to result in the elections office calling the election on election night.”
“It’s just going to create substantially more provisional ballots that county workers are going to have to process,” she said.
Contains Other Barriers
While SB 747 makes it harder to vote by mail and register, it makes it easier to question valid mail ballots based only on conspiracy theories.
Under the new proposal, anyone could challenge a mail ballot in their county without having to present any evidence.
“A lot of the components in the bill cater to election disinformation,” Moreno-Cifuentes said. “Often these mass voter challenges are dismissed because groups are just filing them in bulk without really giving any credentials for why they’re doing these challenges.”
The bill would also require the use of expensive signature verification software that has proved unreliable in other states when used to confirm the identities of non-English speaking voters and those with certain disabilities.
“These softwares are trained to match signatures to the English language,” Moreno-Cifuentes said. “If voters are not native English speaker/writers, their signatures are not being placed in this algorithm that would match with the software.”
And, like with many of these provisions, making the changes takes money and workers, neither of which are clearly provided for in the legislation.
“Right now the county boards are not prepared to have that kind of system in place. They would still need quite a bit more time to be able to allocate funding to train poll workers on it to implement it.”
Ignores Better Options
Senate Bills 747 amounts to “an attack against the very foundations of our Democracy,” Melissa Price Kromm, the director of the voting rights group North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, said at a news conference in front of the General Assembly last week.
In February, Kromm’s group released a “Blueprint for a Stronger Democracy,” an exhaustive list of suggestions to improve voter participation and increase election security written by dozens of rights groups.
These new election bills would produce the exact opposite of a stronger democracy, Kromm said.
Ben Barber of the Institute for Southern Studies and a co-author of the report, agreed.
“Instead of making voting harder in the state, we should be talking about how to expand and enlarge key programs that have been shown to boost turnout and increase voter accessibility,” he said.
The math is pretty simple.
Laws that make voting easier do not invite fraud, they increase voter engagement. And laws that make voting harder suppress turnout while having little effect on fraud.
“It’s clear in other states that when you have active policies to make it easier to vote instead of harder, guess what? You greatly increase voter participation,” Tzintzún Ramirez of NextGen America said.