When members of the N.C. General Assembly reconvene tomorrow – presumably wearing masks and taking all the other recommended precautions to stay safe and help foil the spread of COVID-19 – they’ll confront an unprecedented tangle of complex and crucial issues.
Normally – yes, what we wouldn’t give for some normality – legislators’ main chore this spring would be truing up the proposed state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Even before North Carolina and the rest of Planet Earth got whacked with a viral pandemic, however, that budget exercise was going to be messy. There was no proposed budget to true up because of a legislative standoff with Gov. Roy Cooper.
Now, to make matters far worse, state revenues have cratered because of the coronavirus crisis. Needs have exploded while the flow of money to address them has dwindled.
Beyond finding the wherewithal to maintain basic state services, legislators will have to wrestle with the dire situations facing thousands of their constituents – jobs evaporated, customers vanished, stalked by an insidious disease. Federal efforts, as we’re learning, won’t suffice.
All those problems demand action as soon as possible. Another hugely consequential issue might appear less urgent, given that it won’t come to a head until next fall. But that’s an illusion. There’s no time to waste in preparing for elections in which all voters can safely participate and that meet rigorous standards of fairness and credibility.
Election tweaks in play
North Carolina, of course, is simply one state among many, responsible for only its own elections. But each state must do its part to defend election integrity, even if national currents and the interests of some politicians pull us toward chaos.
From the Oval Office to a county commissioner’s seat, we must be able to discern the public’s true will — and that can’t happen if health risks deter voters from going to the polls, or if other, safer means of casting their ballots haven’t been put in place in time to work smoothly.
Fortunately, the question of how this year’s general election should be conducted already is receiving thoughtful attention. A House select committee  appointed by Speaker Tim Moore – including 76 of the House’s 120 members – is examining all facets of the state’s ongoing COVID-19 response. A subcommittee on “continuity of state operations” has election procedures within its purview.
The State Board of Elections has given the panel a running start. A March 26 memo  from Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell to key legislators and Gov. Cooper describes several changes that would give the voting next fall a better chance of meeting adequate standards for safety, accessibility and orderliness.
The premise is both simple and stark: This election is going to be unlike any other in living memory because of the health risks involved in close personal interactions. Unless untold numbers of eligible voters are to be deterred from exercising the precious right to help choose their government leaders, the state will have to significantly enhance options for voting that don’t require showing up at the polls.
Such an option now exists – casting an absentee ballot. No excuse is needed, unlike times past, when someone had to explain why they couldn’t be around to vote in person. But the process  is clunky for voters and election officials alike. Bell’s suggestions, offered on her board’s behalf, focus on how to improve that process so it becomes a realistic alternative for many more voters than normally use it.
Someone who wants to vote absentee now has to send an official ballot request form via snail mail or a delivery service to the county elections board, or deliver it in person. (A close relative also can handle that chore.) Bell proposes that the request could be submitted by email, using a new online portal – a voter-friendly step that would eliminate mailing or delivery hassles and help a voter stay home.
Absentee ballot requests now must include a voter’s driver’s license number or last four digits of their Social. Bell would allow someone to use another government document showing his or her name and address – a convenience especially for virus-vulnerable senior citizens who otherwise might have to put themselves in harm’s way to get the required proof of identity.
Signed and sealed
Another wrinkle for someone voting absentee under current law is the requirement that two witnesses (or one notary) be on hand to sign the completed ballot, attesting that they saw the voter fill it out. Those witnesses also must sign the official return envelope once it’s sealed.
A witness requirement of course is a deterrent to the sort of corrupt shenanigans that might infect the absentee voting process – not just a theoretical concern, as the 2018 “ballot harvesting” scandal in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District showed.
But when people are operating under a social distancing regime as a vital matter of public health, obtaining the necessary witnesses could be difficult. Bell suggests that the requirement be relaxed or suspended, so as to “reduce the likelihood that a voter would have to go out into the community or invite someone to their home to have their ballot witnessed.”
Other suggestions floated by the board include:
- Supply prepaid postage for absentee ballot returns, eliminating any need for a voter to leave the house in a hunt for stamps.
- Lengthen the period during which absentee ballots would be counted. Submission deadlines would be the same, but time-consuming counts would be stretched out so local elections officials wouldn’t be swamped by the expected crush.
- Expand a student poll worker program so as to beef up polling place staffing, which now skews toward the virus-prone elderly.
- Convert Election Day – Nov. 3 this year – into a state holiday. This also would help augment the supply of poll workers, especially younger ones.
- Increase poll workers’ pay, now set at the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. As Bell’s memo notes, “On Election Day, poll workers must serve for the entire day without leaving the site – a shift of more than 14 hours.” Especially at minimum wage, that’s a lot to ask of folks who also shoulder some degree of health risk.
- Make the rules for early voting sites more flexible so that all sites in a given county don’t have to be open if any of them are. That would allow some sites to operate even if others were kept closed because of virus worries.
Voters’ essential voices
As meritorious as these suggestions may be – and none of them should be waved through without careful review – what’s inevitable is that the review will be colored by practical politics.
It’s simply a fact, recently articulated by none other than President Trump, that Republicans have found it advantageous to shrink the voter pool. So making it easier to cast absentee ballots, for example, might be a hard sell in GOP circles – even though Republican voters typically have been more inclined than Democrats to go the absentee route.
In North Carolina, the jockeying for power between Republican legislative chiefs and Cooper, the state’s top Democrat, also has been especially intense with regard to control of the Board of Elections.
Despite Republican efforts the board now is in Democratic hands, just as it had a Republican majority under Cooper’s predecessor, Republican Pat McCrory. The upcoming test for GOP legislators will be whether they can put self-serving political motives aside and make necessary adjustments balancing election integrity with protection of public health.
The N.C. Council of Churches views that balancing not through a political lens but through the lens of social justice. The Council’s belief as informed by Christian teachings is that our system of government has to let all eligible citizens have a say at the polls if the interests of everyone, including those on the social margins, are to be taken into account.
That’s another way of saying that the Council favors making it easier rather than harder to vote, so long as elections are conducted honestly. Member churches have a role to play in helping guide their congregations through the voting process.
It’s not clear at this point when legislators will publicly take up the kind of proposals now being circulated by the Board of Elections. But there will have to be good-faith efforts to resolve disagreements while there’s still time to ramp up for changes taking effect in the fall.
There’s also the matter of funding, as some changes carry a price tag. No matter how scarce money becomes as legislators try to solve the budget riddle amid a revenue drought, that can’t become an excuse to let elections degrade into farce as citizens choose health over voting. The price in corrosion of our state’s democracy would be far higher.
Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches .