WASHINGTON — Officials at the North Carolina State Board of Elections pleaded “urgently” just weeks ago for lawmakers to approve additional funds to help pay for coronavirus-related costs for upcoming elections.
That legislation still hasn’t passed, and an upcoming special election for a U.S. congressional primary will test election officials’ ability to respond as the coronavirus pandemic has scrambled elections around the country.
The funds officials are seeking would help counties purchase supplies – like masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and single-use pens – for the special election to fill the seat formerly held by Mark Meadows.
Earlier this year, Meadows left the U.S. House of Representatives to become President Donald Trump’s chief of staff. The June 23 contest is a Republican primary runoff between candidates Lynda Bennett and Madison Cawthorn.
But early in-person voting for the contest started June 4, before the North Carolina legislature could pass a multiface
ted election-related bill that would authorize the state to spend an additional $2 million for coronavirus-related election expenses.
The $2 million in state funds is the match to secure an additional $11 million in federal money that’s available to the state through the CARES Act, a coronavirus-related rescue package passed by Congress in March.
“We are supportive of the legislature’s action on the bill and will be OK, provided that the matching funds are approved,” said NCSBE spokesman Patrick Gannon in an email. “We have pulled from other funds to upfront the costs of PPE (personal protective equipment) and other necessary supplies in response to COVID-19 for the June 23 election.”
The spread of the coronavirus has forced election officials all over the country to scramble to find money and supplies to accommodate a surge in requests for absentee ballots, the need for disinfecting and social distancing at polling places, and widespread shortages of poll workers.
Several congressional committees are exploring the potential impacts that the coronavirus will have on elections, and several states have experienced hours-long lines for polling places in elections this spring.
In North Carolina, the board of elections asked state lawmakers to take several steps to help election officials cope with the additional demands. The election legislation, HB 1169, includes many of those provisions:
- Eliminating a requirement that a majority of poll workers reside in precinct,
- Reducing the number of witnesses required for turning in an absentee ballot from two to one,
- Allowing state officials to create a website for voters to request absentee ballots, and
- Allowing voters to request absentee ballots via email or fax.
Many of the provisions in the measure, though, would only apply to elections this year.
Marian Lewin, vice president of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, said the group supports many of the provisions in the bill but called it “incomplete.” The legislation, for example, doesn’t change how counties operate early voting sites, even though they have been popular with North Carolina voters. Current law requires all early voting sites in a county to have the same hours of operation, which makes it more expensive and less likely that counties will offer as many choices, Lewin said.
The league is also concerned about provisions in the legislation that would amend the state’s voter ID law, which has been temporarily put on hold by state and federal courts. The legislation would expand the types of government-issued ID that a voter could use to prove their identity. But Lewin worries that amending the underlying law could disturb the injunctions on the law.
“We oppose voter ID of any form at any time, and we don’t support any new language on voter ID,” she said.
Gannon, spokesman for the state board of elections, said the board supported the proposed changes.
“Although the photo ID law is currently enjoined by state and federal courts, we are supportive of the change to allow public assistance IDs, as it would increase the types of photo IDs that would be acceptable if the law were not enjoined,” he said.
Another part of the legislation would explicitly ban the state board of elections from distributing absentee ballots to voters who did not submit written requests for them. It would also ban the state board from conducting an election with entirely mail-in ballots.
However, the provisions would have little practical effect, Lewin and Gannon said. The provision doesn’t change current law, Gannon noted, and it would still allow the state board to send applications for mail-in ballots to all voters if it chose to.
But Lewin said there is still “quite a bit of urgency” to get the bill passed soon. County boards of election are working on their early voting plans, which they need to turn into the state by July. And boards will begin sending absentee ballots for the November election on Sept. 4.
“In North Carolina, all the money for running an election comes out of county budgets. So that money is really, really important right now because running an election under COVID is going to be a lot more expensive,” Lewin said. “And right now it’s just sitting in the legislature.”
Daniel C. Vock is States Newsroom Washington correspondent.