Making the 2020 election, safe, fair and efficient: Now is the time to act

Making the 2020 election, safe, fair and efficient: Now is the time to act

- in Progressive Voices, Top Story
(Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Members of the North Carolina House and Senate, resolutely confronting the deadly and disastrous coronavirus pandemic, have offered up shining examples of just what friends are for. Friends are there to rescue you as you’re about to commit a major blunder — a blunder betraying long-held principles and maybe even helping some people who aren’t campaign mega-donors.

The House, taking its cue from Speaker Tim Moore, agreed it would be a good idea – at least while the virus continues to cut its swath – to expand North Carolina’s Medicaid program to cover more of its citizens gripped by poverty. Even with strings attached, that would represent a step toward better health care for people in desperate need, as well as an overdue concession to Gov. Roy Cooper and his fellow Democrats.

The Senate, though, stepped in to save the day. When the two Republican-controlled chambers forged a compromise to enact coronavirus relief legislation, senators made sure that any meaningful Medicaid expansion didn’t make the cut. Whew – close call!

Then came the House’s chance to return the favor. The Senate, mindful of the surge in North Carolinians who’ve lost their jobs during  the virus outbreak, wanted to grant a modest boost in unemployment compensation, recognized as the nation’s stingiest. Its relief bill included a raise from $350 to $400 per week in the maximum benefit.

The House – always on guard for folks who would rather draw a measly, temporary unemployment check than go back to making an honest living – in its wisdom blocked the benefit hike. Senators surely were grateful to have been pulled back from the brink in their moment of weakness.

Voting debate looms

Yes, we’ve been poking a little fun at our esteemed lawmakers for how they narrowly avoided doing a couple of things that should have been on their to-do list all along. Let it be noted what they did accomplish: $1.57 billion in a first wave of federal emergency funds will be channeled toward relieving some of the pandemic’s stress on the state’s public health systems, its educational programs and a range of government operations in general. Democratic House and Senate members went along with the compromise legislation (House Bill 1043 and Senate Bill 704 ), and Gov. Cooper on May 4 promptly signed both measures.

The federal money can be put to good use. But North Carolina will remain in a fiscal bind as state revenues, tied to the economy, dwindle even as the crisis places further demands on the public purse.

One set of demands that legislators have yet to deal with involves the election scheduled for Nov. 3. There’s no telling how serious a threat the coronavirus will pose by then, but many voters won’t want to take the risk of personal contact at crowded polling places. The same goes for many of the folks who traditionally staff the polls, whether during early voting or on Election Day.

The upshot is that North Carolina and every state that normally has relied heavily on in-person voting will need to devise work-arounds allowing the election to go forward without putting people in jeopardy.

One such path obviously means a ramped-up emphasis on voting remotely. In the North Carolina context that boils down to a simplified and strengthened method for voting absentee by mail.

Someone now can choose that option without having to provide an excuse for not going to the polls, but it raises other concerns because of its inconvenience and complexity. Without improvements in the absentee ballot process to accommodate an anticipated rush of new users, the election could deteriorate into a public health calamity or a tangled travesty leaving qualified voters on the outside looking in.

As discussed here recently, the State Board of Elections has proposed several steps to make absentee voting more user-friendly and thus more democracy-friendly while keeping it fair and honest. Recommendations include making it easier to obtain and submit an absentee ballot and allowing more time for ballots to arrive in the mail before they are counted.

It’s an ambitious set of proposals that could help shore up voter participation rates while protecting public health. But legislators, even while they closed ranks to parcel out the federal relief funds, set the whole batch of election-related issues aside for separate consideration down the road. That’s a signal of how contentious those issues are, given that higher turnouts tend to be seen as working in Democrats’ favor and also that North Carolina is a key battleground in the ultra-high-stakes presidential contest.

Further, Republican legislators are especially eager to retain their majorities during an election cycle that will determine which party controls the next round of congressional and legislative redistricting, which will help set the state’s political tone for the next decade. To say their reaction to ideas emanating from the elections board, which has a Democratic majority in alignment with the Democratic governor, has been cool would be putting it mildly.

Tell it to the judges

Here’s the latest twist: Just as legislators from both parties were wrapping up their first big stab at a pandemic response, along came a lawsuit demanding that the challenge of voting amid what’s likely to be a still-active plague be taken seriously.

Plaintiffs in the suit, filed May 4 in Wake County Superior Court, are voters represented by attorneys with ties to national Democratic voting-rights groups – notably, a redistricting reform committee headed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Their argument has to do with the dilemma faced by citizens with little choice but to show up at busy voting sites, in defiance of federal disease-prevention guidelines, if they want to be assured of casting ballots that will be counted.

The suit asks judges to decide that failing to facilitate absentee voting would violate North Carolina’s constitutional guarantee of free elections. In particular, the suit says, the requirement that someone have two witnesses or a notary on hand when signing an absentee ballot creates an unacceptable burden for many people, especially the elderly living alone, who must observe social distancing protocols for their own safety.

The witness rule should be nullified, according to the lawsuit, and absentee ballots should be distributed with return postage paid. Also, the deadline for receipt should be delayed so that it matches the deadline in effect for military ballots returned from overseas. That would make the tallying of an expected surge of mailed-in ballots more manageable.

Lawsuit or not, legislators wouldn’t want to adopt any such changes without due regard for election integrity – in other words, no changes should become a license to cheat.

But neither should a hyped-up fear of cheating become an excuse not to tweak the election system so it can continue to function in the midst of a public health crisis unlike anything seen for a century.

The N.C. Council of Churches’ stake in these discussions is rooted not in partisanship but in the belief that safe, fair and efficient voting procedures are crucial if all eligible citizens, including those without money and power, can exercise their right to help choose the elected leaders who will best represent their interests.

The Council stands in support of any and all procedural changes enabling voters this year to vote in honest elections without fear, danger and unnecessary hindrance. If legislators in the coming weeks – they must act soon – can steer a course toward bipartisan safeguarding of rights that are fundamental to America’s identity and well-being, this time let there be no last-minute “rescues” from their deeds of civic duty.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.