The N.C. General Assembly — under the thumb of a conservative and anti-small-d-democratic majority – is making its intentions clear. It wants to keep as many voters as possible from participating in next year’s high-stakes elections.
Might some voters aligned with that Republican majority wind up as collateral damage, inconvenienced or frustrated to the point that they don’t cast ballots or perhaps so entangled in red tape that their ballots aren’t counted?
No doubt about it. But the calculation – embraced nationally by top Republicans and adopted by the party’s North Carolina leaders – apparently is that the ongoing voter suppression push will have a greater effect among people more likely to favor Republicans’ opponents. That means core elements of the Democratic-leaning base such as students, African-Americans, and well-educated residents of the state’s metro areas.
As leverage against those unwanted voters, legislators can make it harder to register, harder to use the early voting period, harder to cast an absentee ballot, and harder to be sure that such ballots will count. All those tactics are either already in play or predictably will be.
What’s more, this is happening against the backdrop of efforts to undermine the state’s orderly administration of elections. The cynical logic is plain enough: When elections run smoothly, votes get counted. In other words, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a nice dose of chaos.
This voter-unfriendly double-whammy arises in two bills that recently cleared the state Senate on party-line votes and that now are in the custody of the House Election Law Committee.
Senate Bill 747 makes a raft of election changes likely to siphon votes from Democratic totals. Under the ostensible goal of boosting election “integrity” – which is in doubt only among those credulous souls who buy into former President Trump’s debunked claims of widespread voter fraud – voters would have to jump through new bureaucratic hoops to register and cast a regular ballot on the same day during early voting.
Someone running afoul of the new requirements – even though their identity or place of residence couldn’t reasonably be questioned – could vote only by provisional ballot, which would be counted only after he or she provided further identity documentation.
This is among several of the bill’s solutions in search of a problem. Others involve, for example, scrapping the three-day post-election grace period for receipt of absentee ballots, and forcing local election boards to embark on what amounts to a technological snipe hunt – finding software that can validate the signatures on absentee ballots without gumming up the system and putting untold numbers of ballots unfairly at risk of being tossed.
Almost as if it’s calculated to work in tandem with that legislative masterpiece (who would have thunk it!), Senate Bill 749 would gut the current state and county elections board system.
The problem, it seems, is that the party of the governor – that would be Democrat Roy Cooper at this point – by statute is given a one-seat majority on each of those boards, which together are responsible for election administration at the state and county level. At least that’s a problem for Republicans who resent, for instance, the use of early voting sites convenient for college kids as chosen by local boards.
The bill would have the effect of stalemating many boards with members evenly divided between the two major parties, a scenario that, by design, would throw key decisions to the legislature itself.
That’s enough to send the sponsors’ cover story – that their goal is to make elections oversight nonpartisan – up in smoke. Of course, members of the newly configured boards could recreate the “peaceable kingdom” wherein lions lie down with lambs and so forth. Such collaboration in the public interest is a pleasant thought, but in today’s political climate don’t hold your breath.
If S.B. 749 emerges from the House in its present form, Cooper is certain to veto it. But with Republicans holding veto-proof majorities in each legislative chamber, what GOP chiefs want, they usually have the muscle to get. The bill’s opponents might try to derail it with a legal challenge, citing separation of powers concerns that the state Supreme Court previously has voiced. But that was when the court’s own majority was Democratic, as opposed to the current 5-2 margin held by Republican justices who haven’t been shy about supporting their party’s agenda.
One of those justices’ notable rulings since taking office in January lifted the legal cloud that had blocked a requirement for voters to present a government-issued photo ID, which not everyone carries in their wallet. That rule is scheduled to kick in for the 2023 cycle of municipal elections. More significant could be its effect next year, when offices from president and governor on down will be contested.
Not only will in-person voting be affected, but absentee-by-mail voting as well. That method soared in popularity in 2020 amid the pandemic, especially among Democratic-leaning voters who took COVID avoidance seriously. The upshot has been a Republican effort to make voting by mail less convenient and less attractive as an option.
Hence the requirement that absentee voters have two witnesses rather than one as they fill out their ballots, or one witness who is a notary. And hence the mandate, almost nonsensical on its face, that voters include a photocopy of their photo ID with their ballot submission. What difference does it make what the person looks like when no one is standing there to be compared with the photo? True, an eligible citizen who lacks a suitable ID such as a driver’s license or passport can apply for an exception to the ID rule – but that’s just another needless complication to bog down election officials as they decide who qualifies.
The granddaddy of such needless complications could be the requirement that an absentee voter’s ballot signature be matched with the signature on his or her ID document, effective for the 2024 general election. The process would begin with some kind of software screening. Inevitably, there would be instances where election board officials would have to decide whether there was a legitimate match.
It’s not hard to imagine circumstances under which, for perfectly innocent reasons, the signatures differed. Still, the discrepancy would have to be investigated, and the voter given a chance to explain. If that process failed to work, legitimate ballots could end up being tossed.
Thanks to industrious reporting by The News & Observer of Raleigh, we now have a sense of how onerous, half-baked, unnecessary, and extreme the proposed signature-matching rule actually is. One Democratic legislator, Sen. Lisa Grafstein of Raleigh, asserted that it would make North Carolina “one of the strictest – if not the strictest state” for absentee voting. “It does make us an extreme outlier when it comes to just overkill,” she was quoted as saying.
In a rare concession to Democratic opponents, the Senate pushed back the signature verification requirement’s effective date to allow a 10-county test to be conducted for the 2024 primary elections. A better outcome would be for the House to come to its senses and pull the plug entirely. In any case, it’s still not clear where funding for the verification system would come from – consistent with a pattern that sees election boards being assigned new tasks without new resources.
No one can, or does, object to the premise that elections should be run on the up-and-up, with voting limited to properly qualified citizens, access to the polls convenient and fair, and ballots counted accurately and efficiently. Safeguards against fraud of course must be robust, and in North Carolina they’ve been shown to be effective.
But in the interests of a democracy where all who are eligible can have their say, those safeguards must not be transformed into tools of voter suppression. The so-called election integrity push is itself the overarching fraud – cooked up by conspiracy mongers as a self-serving excuse to make voting more difficult within a stressed-out system. It’s a challenge that can be overcome only by citizens resolved not to be swamped amid an authoritarian tide.