GOP senators push absentee ballot bill to address their top fear: Too many votes

GOP senators push absentee ballot bill to address their top fear: Too many votes

With Republican lawmakers throughout the land making “election integrity” a favorite cause and rallying cry, it likely was just a matter of time before some of their North Carolina counterparts got on board.

Lo and behold, along came the sterling piece of legislative statesmanship known as Senate Bill 326, filed on March 18 and entitled the “Election Integrity Act.” Its sponsors are Sens. Warren Daniel of Morganton, Paul Newton of Mt. Pleasant and Ralph Hise of Spruce Pine, chairman of the Senate’s Redistricting and Elections Committee.

The bill would remove what for Republicans, seemingly still hypnotized by former President Trump’s outlandish complaints about voter fraud that didn’t exist, must be a thorn in the side. That’s the rule allowing mailed absentee ballots to be counted in North Carolina if received up to three days after Election Day, so long as they were mailed on Election Day or sooner.

If the bill somehow eludes a veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and becomes law, then the cutoff for absentee ballots to be submitted and accepted would be 5:00 p.m. on Election Day  proper.

Further, the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot would be advanced by a week, from the first Tuesday before the election to the previous Tuesday.

And while the dubious rule that voters must show an approved form of photo ID is still hung up in the courts, S.B. 326 affirms that absentee voters would have to be given a “clear statement of the requirement for a photocopy of identification” to be submitted with their ballot. (In some cases, an affidavit attesting to the person’s identity would suffice.)

In other words:

  • Voters would be unable to apply for an absentee ballot during a key week close to the election.
  • They would have to mail the ballot sooner for it to count.
  • They might need to make a copy of their driver’s license or other approved ID and send that in as well. Not a hassle for people with ready access to copy machines. For others, well…

What problems, what kinks in our state’s voting procedures, what threats to “election integrity” is this tinkering intended to fix? Problems, kinks and threats that, frankly, dwell only in the minds of Republicans eager to join Donald Trump’s election fraud snipe hunt – or worried that if they don’t, they’ll have their Trumpist cult credentials revoked.

Squeaky clean

The elections of 2020, in North Carolina and elsewhere, by findings in several dozen courts were conducted without any corruption significant enough to affect outcomes, and evidently without any notable corruption at all.

Essentially, they went off without a hitch – even though voting was carried out in the teeth of a pandemic that put people across the country in justifiable fear for their health.

In North Carolina, thanks to creative and diligent election officials, as well as to support for sensible rules changes from legislators of both parties, turnout surged to record levels. And with the conspicuous exception of Cooper’s victory in his bid for a second term, Republican candidates – including Trump — on the whole fared well up and down the ballot.

So perhaps it’s no wonder that S.B. 326 showed up as a latecomer in the national push by Trump-aligned lawmakers and their allies to tighten up on voting because of what they characterize as voters’ lack of confidence that the elections last fall were honest.

With Trump’s complaints about supposed Democratic cheating – the same complaints that spurred a violent mob to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6 – ringing in their ears, his loyalists’ faith in the credibility of the voting process may well have been shaken.

But trying to restore voters’ confidence in election security is mostly a cover story. Republican dogma – the dogma that drives voter suppression – has been that having fewer voters helps the party’s candidates. Or at least fewer voters from categories tending to be Democratic-friendly.

One such category in 2020 included voters who used mail-in ballots. Trump deterred members of his own party with his unwarranted criticism of mail-in voting as shot through with fraud, while get-out-the-vote efforts emphasizing vote-by-mail gained traction among pro-Democratic constituencies.

Tweaks that worked

North Carolina did in fact bend over backwards last year to accommodate heightened interest in absentee voting.

It gave people several ways to apply, including online, and let them track their submitted ballots.

It scaled back the witness requirement from two people to one – a huge assist to those living in two-adult households who were able to maintain their anti-virus social distancing protocols.

And it lengthened the time for receipt of mailed absentee ballots from three days after the election to nine days, so long as the ballot was postmarked by Election Day. Warnings by the U.S. Postal Service of mail delivery delays were cited as a reason for granting the extra time.

Republican legislative chiefs strongly opposed the latter change, but it held up in court. In any case, the cutoff after which any outstanding absentee ballots won’t count now reverts to three days. Why not just keep it that way? Allowing absentee ballots to be mailed as late as Election Day is simply another means to encourage voting, no matter the voter’s partisan affiliation or lack of affiliation – a hallmark of any democratic system worthy of the name.

S.B. 326 would appropriate $5 million to help find people “who need photo identification to vote in person” and to fund a “mobile component” to help distribute those IDs.

Perhaps those efforts could finally overcome the inherent defects of a voter ID rule, stemming from its disproportionate impact on certain voters, African-Americans in particular, who don’t have the necessary documents. Not coincidentally, such voters tend to lean Democratic. But since voter ID purportedly aims to fix a fraud problem that in reality doesn’t exist, a better option would be just to save the $5 million.

Whatever happens to S.B. 326, we can expect other disputes over absentee voting rules to play out. Those legislators who want to disallow ballots received after Election Day might also like to see the two-witness requirement reinstated, as it’s scheduled to be. Coupled with a requirement that voters send in a copy of their photo ID, that would amount to a double-whammy almost certain to curb vote-by-mail enthusiasm.

Democrats in the legislature don’t have enough votes on their own to forestall that kind of backsliding. What they can do is stand together to uphold any of Cooper’s vetoes meant to block Republican attempts to shrink the electorate.

Then, let the parties compete over ideas, policies and candidates’ qualifications – with the winners chosen by more eligible voters rather than fewer. That’s the essence of “consent of the governed” and a path toward liberty and justice for all.

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