NC Senate bill to limit access to absentee mail-in voting

Whatever our color, background or ZIP code, most of us believe in a democracy that is based on freedom, fairness, and full participation.

But now, some lawmakers in the NC General Assembly have passed an election bill that will create new barriers to ensuring that every person can cast a ballot and have their voice heard. It also will raise the cost of administering elections for the counties.

Senate Bill 747 will sharply limit access to absentee mail-in voting and seeks to pilot costly and discriminatory signature verification for mail-in voting, while creating more channels for the intimidation of voters and election volunteers as well as challenges to ballots cast.

The ability to implement this bill with a view toward protecting our democracy and the vote will be next to impossible — not least because it is unclear whether the implementation will be fully funded.

At the same time, the legislation will bar counties from accepting funds that would cover the costs of the administration of free and fair elections from private sources — a move that unnecessarily limits the resources available for staffing election sites and processing ballots when it is well documented that public funds have been woefully inadequate to administer fair elections.

Given that prohibition, it should be a requirement that legislators fully fund implementation of the various provisions passed in Senate Bill 747 in this year’s budget, which is not moving nearly as quickly as this proposal despite being two months into the fiscal year.

Among the new costs facing election administrators are

  • Maintaining uniform hours if any precinct voting site must be extended, resulting in additional staff hours and building use
  • Potential additional staffing for assistance logs and roaming poll observers
  • Implementation of a signature verification requirement
  • Additional staffing and technology upgrades to align with new ballot processes, particularly for mail-in ballots.

While official estimates were not provided before the vote, at least some of the costs can be readily quantified. For example, the proposed pilot of signature verification would likely cost at least $1.9 million to implement. Other costs require deeper analysis and understanding of the ways in which these changes will shift election administration practices overall and thus require new staffing, technology and other support.

At a time when elections are already underfunded, a failure to fund these costs will result in shifting the costs to county governments or creating barriers to the vote for people, particularly those North Carolinians in rural areas, with disabilities, or from communities of color.

Already, county governments are dealing with the unfunded mandate to implement a costly photo identification requirement during this year’s municipal election.

In a recently updated analysis based on work we did in 2018, we find that the cost of implementation will be at least $11 million at the state level alone.

Costs are likely even higher for county governments, and county officials already have shared the challenges they face when resources aren’t available for implementation.

In Harnett County, Board of Election officials noted in a recent meeting that they need to begin voter education now on the requirement so as to minimize the significant demands expected during implementation in 2024. In Wayne County, Board of Election officials noted that the costs for additional training of poll workers and other implementation costs were not funded in the most recent county budget but are likely to be requested given the need.

No matter what we look like or who we vote for, most of us believe that our elected leaders should deliver for us. But North Carolina legislative leaders continue to raise the cost of administering free and fair elections — blocking access to the ballot for many voters. We deserve leaders who will fund the priorities of all North Carolinians and make the promise of democracy real for all of us.