Senators unveiled a large set of election reforms on June 1, many of which the John Locke Foundation had advocated for over the past several years.
Senate Bill 747 has the unassuming moniker “An Act to Make Various Changes Regarding Elections Law.” That is appropriate since most of the bill focuses on changes to election administration rather than how voters cast ballots. It is sponsored by senators Ralph Hise, Paul Newton, and Warren Daniel.
The bill includes several policy changes for which the John Locke Foundation has advocated on pages 111-134 of our North Carolina Policy Solutions 2022 and elsewhere.
With that in mind, here is a bare-bones review of the bill’s 22 substantive sections.
- PART I. ELECTION DAY INTEGRITY ACT requires that the county board of elections receive most absentee by-mail ballots by the close of polls on election day (7:30 unless polls are kept open later by court order). Military and overseas ballots can be received up to nine days after election day, as federal law requires. North Carolina has the earliest start of mail voting in the United States, with ballots being sent to voters up to 60 days before election day. Locke has advocated for that reform: “For clarity and to reassure voters about the integrity of absentee-by-mail voting, North Carolina should require that regular absentee ballots be received by election day.” The section also increases transparency by expanding what data county boards of elections must report each day.
- PART II. PROHIBIT PRIVATE MONEY IN ELECTIONS ADMINISTRATION bans private funding of election administration, including so-called “Zuck bucks.” Locke has advocated for this reform (see pages 63-73 of our report on the 2020 election): “The best solution is to ban the private funding of election administration outright.”
- PART III. REMOVE FOREIGN CITIZENS FROM VOTING ROLLS requires the North Carolina court system to send quarterly reports of those who have been excused from jury duty due to not being citizens to the State Board of Elections (SBE). The SBE will then, after a 30-day notice, remove any reported noncitizens from voter rolls. Locke has advocated for this reform (see page 133 of Locke’s North Carolina Policy Solutions 2022. Also, see a related 2019 article at the Civitas Institute): “With safeguards built in to make sure that eligible voters are not taken off voter rolls, there is no reason to deny this information to election officials to help them maintain their lists.”
- PART IV. INSPECTABLE ABSENTEE BALLOT ENVELOPES states that absentee ballots are “subject to public inspection.” I believe this section needs further clarification. As this section is currently written, it appears to allow people to see absentee ballots (and not just the absentee ballot application on the container envelopes) before they are officially counted. That would potentially allow people to keep a running tally of mail ballot results in the weeks before election day. The title of the section also indicates that it is the absentee ballot container envelopes, not the ballots, that will be open to public inspection before election day.
- PART V. BAR CODING BY BOARDS OF ELECTIONS ONLY: This section would make affixing barcodes or “other unique identifier” to an absentee ballot, an absentee container-return envelope, or an absentee ballot request form by anyone other than election officials a class 1 misdemeanor (subject to up to 120 days in jail and a fine). Politicos on both sides of the aisle use those codes on absentee ballot request forms to identify people who have requested absentee ballots. Ballot traffickers could also use that process to identify their targets.
- PART VI. RETENTION OF VOTING RECORDS/ARCHIVE OF PAST ELECTIONS RESULTS increases the period county election officials must retain election records to 22 months after an election. County boards can currently destroy records in as little as four months (section 10). It also makes the type of ID used in absentee voting for people who also registered to vote by mail a public record.
- PART VII. VOTER ASSISTANCE LOG requires election officials to keep a record of “any person rendering assistance to a voter” at early “one-stop” and precinct polling locations (basically a clipboard with a log sheet). There is already a similar requirement to note those aiding people voting by mail. Locke has advocated for this reform (see page 123 of Locke’s North Carolina Policy Solutions 2022): “Election officials should maintain a log with the names and addresses of those who assist voters in early voting sites or election day polling places.”
- PART VIII. REQUIRE PROVISIONAL BALLOT FOR SAME-DAY REGISTRATION would make ballots of those who vote during the early voting period after using same-day registration provisional. Those ballots would be counted if either the county board of elections verifies the person’s address through its normal procedures or “Upon providing a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document showing the name and address of the voter at the county board of elections where the voter resides before the close of polls on election day.” This is little change from current procedures but would appear to require affected individuals to provide the same documents a second time. Locke has advocated for making ballots associated with unverified same-day registrations provisional.
- PART IX. REPORT/REVISIONS TO ELECTIONS RECORDS AFTER CERTIFICATION requires the state board of elections to report any changes to election records after the election has been certified to the General Assembly, including the reason for the change.
- PART X. ALLOW ANY ELIGIBLE VOTER IN A COUNTY TO FILE A CHALLENGE OF A VOTER’S ABSENTEE BALLOT expands who may make a challenge to an absentee ballot. Currently, only those living in the same precinct may make a challenge. Neither mail ballots nor one-stop absentee ballots are handled at the precinct level, meaning that the current language is impractical for most ballots submitted in North Carolina.
- PART XI. ABSENTEE BALLOTS/REQUIRE PRINTED NAMES FOR WITNESS SIGNATURES requires that absentee ballot container envelopes include a space for witnesses to print their names, making it easier to identify who the witnesses are. Anyone who has investigated absentee ballot container envelopes can attest that this is a welcome change.
- PART XII. REQUIRE SIGNATURE VERIFICATION SOFTWARE FOR ABSENTEE BALLOTS adds an additional layer of mail ballot security to our current two-witness requirement. The state should provide money for the software and training in its use to county elections boards. Locke has advocated for that reform: “The witness requirement and signature matching for ballot security are no more mutually exclusive than having an alarm for your home and locking your doors.”
- PART XIII. ENSURE PRECINCT OFFICIALS ONE-STOP VOTING PLACES ARE ALLOCATED THE SAME AS THOSE SERVING ON ELECTION DAY ensures that staff working at early voting sites are bipartisan. That is already required for staff working in precinct polling places on election day. Locke has advocated for at least studying the feasibility of this reform (see pages 102 and 107 of What Happened in 2020?).
- PART XIV. CHALLENGE APPEALS OF STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS HEARD IN COUNTY WHERE CHALLENGE ORIGINATED adds a provision clarifying that “If the appeal is made by the State Board of Elections, that appeal shall be to the Superior Court of the county in which the challenge originated.”
- PART XV. IMPERSONATING AN ELECTIONS OFFICIAL/CLASS 1 MISDEMEANOR makes it a misdemeanor to impersonate an election official “while in the discharge of duties in the registration of voters or in conducting any primary or election.”
- PART XVI. EXTENSION BY JUDICIAL ORDER/CLOSING OF POLLS requires that the voting period in all counties be extended if a judge orders polls in one county to be extended. This would not come into effect in cases where the State Board of Elections extends voting in precincts opened late or had to stop voting due to technical problems.
- PART XVII. REQUIRE SBI INVESTIGATION/ELECTION-RELATED FELONY OFFENSES requires the State Bureau of Investigation to investigate allegations of election crimes. Locke has advocated for that reform: “[T]he General Assembly should pass legislation creating a body tasked with independently conducting criminal investigations into alleged election fraud, either as an independent body or housed within the State Bureau of Investigation. That body could also investigate allegations of voter intimidation and other election crimes.”
- PART XVIII. POLL OBSERVERS/SHIFT SERVICE AND RELIEF clarifies that election observers who completed at least four hours of service at a polling place may serve as an observer again “at any voting place in that same county” that day. That would include the location where the observer had originally observed. That would help parties fill observer positions during busy periods by letting them work split shifts with breaks during the early afternoon slow period.
- PART XIX. PRECINCT ELECTION OFFICIALS/REVISE SERVICE DUTIES ON DAY OF PRIMARY, GENERAL, OR SPECIAL ELECTION removes the requirement that election day chief judges and judges remain in the voting place from the time they arrive to set it up until they have completed all their duties. That would allow them to temporarily leave the voting place (perhaps to run errands or just stretch their legs during slow periods), making the work less onerous. Those officials have several duties they cannot delegate to assistant officials, so they would not be able to leave for long.
- PART XX. REQUIRE TWO-FACTOR AUTHENTICATION PROCESS/MAIL-IN ABSENTEE BALLOTS requires the State Board of Elections to “establish and implement a two-factor authentication process for executed absentee ballots transmitted by mail” and for county elections boards to follow that process. Two-factor authentication is associated with online services, so the state board may need some clarification about what that would mean for mail ballot processing.
- PART XXI. REQUIRE KNOWING VIOLATION/VOTING WITHOUT RIGHTS OF CITIZENSHIP RESTORED makes an exception to the old adage “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Those serving felony sentences who illegally vote in an election can only be convicted if prosecutors can prove they “knowingly” did so. This appears to be a protection for felons who are no longer eligible to vote after the North Carolina Supreme Court’s April 28 ruling upholding the state’s ban on felon voting.
- PART XXII. STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS RECOMMENDED REVISIONS makes several changes and clarifications to election procedures. Those include codifying the absentee ballot cure process instituted by the State Board of Elections under a court order in 2020 and expanding the process to cover absentee ballots submitted without copies of voter IDs. (The curing process allows voters to correct deficiencies with their absentee ballots so they can be counted.) Before 2020, counties made their own policies about curing absentee ballots. Another part of this section modernizes how the governor reports the election of members of the Electoral College to the federal government.
There are some other provisions tucked in those sections.
The current draft of the bill does not have a severability clause, which allows other parts of a bill to remain in effect if one part is struck down by a court. Such clauses are a standard part of legislation in the General Assembly and expect one to be added to this bill as well.
Legislators and politicos will argue over parts of the election reform bill ad nauseum in the coming days and the bill’s final version will likely look different from its current form.