Pandemic-response elections bill headed to State House floor, but some legislators don’t think it goes far enough

Pandemic-response elections bill headed to State House floor, but some legislators don't think it goes far enough

NEW HANOVER COUNTY (WECT) - Two state representatives from New Hanover County are pushing for temporary changes in election law: Rep. Holly Grange (R) is one of the sponsors of a bi-partisan bill that made its way through committee Wednesday, and Rep. Deb Butler (D) has filed different legislation, as she says the bill in progress doesn’t go far enough.

Grange’s bill, House Bill 1169, sailed through both the committee she chairs, the Committee on Ethics and Elections Law, and the House rules committee Wednesday, with only a few minor amendments in each.

“The bill is is intended to help our state board of elections and our county board of elections and give them the resources available that they need to conduct a safe and fair election in these crazy times,” she said.

It deals with the financial aspect of running an election during the pandemic — an endeavor that will be expensive and complicated — as well as adjustments to some regulations to make voting safer, particularly for those in high-risk age groups.

One of the most notable changes is the reduction of the witness requirement on absentee ballots, with the changes allowing a voter to get just one witness signature, as long as that person’s detailed information is included.

“What this bill does is it allows for only one witness as opposed to two and that witness is required to not only sign but print their name and print their address," Grange said. "So there are some people that may not be comfortable seeking out they may only let one person that lives at home with them or they may not have anyone else available to in order to have those two witnesses. So just for the 2020 elections, there will only be one witness required.”

To deal with the $11 million the North Carolina State Board of Elections is eligible to receive thanks to the CARES Act out of Washington, it would divide counties into subgroups, with each receiving a certain amount based on voter registration.

New Hanover County, Grange said, would receive nearly $221,000.

But while the amended bill passed out of the elections committee unanimously and out of the rules committee with just two “nay” votes, not all lawmakers are on board.

Rep. Butler and co-sponsors filed two bills on Tuesday, one to deal with voting processes and another to deal with the financial side of things.

The former, House Bill 1184, is more aggressive than the one headed to the State House floor Thursday. Not only does it reduce the witness requirement, but it would allow for other forms of certification that the ballot was voted by the registered voter, such as a utility bill. It also would extend the voter registration period until two weeks before election day, and would have counties send every registered voter an absentee ballot request form.

Butler said she filed her bill because she found the main effort to be lacking.

“When I read the first bill that was filed, I realized what its shortcomings were,” she said, “and I realized that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and people are doing what they can to try to forge a bipartisan solution, but it falls short.”

Specifically, she said she thinks it does not do enough to protect the at-risk individuals who don’t feel safe voting in person, but would find it difficult to procure a witness or even the postage necessary to handle the absentee ballot process.

Butler said she also takes issue with a provision of the bill that has to do with using a photo ID, arguing it is a “back door” into the Voter ID debate that has long held the state.

In the end, she said whether it’s through her bills or significant changes to the ones that have already cleared committee, she hopes more is done to address the issue.

“Nobody should have to risk their life or their health or forego the right to vote,” she said.

In Wednesday’s rules committee meeting, Grange expressed the same sentiment when one of the members questioned the need for the bill at all if the effects of the pandemic in November are not as severe.

The next stop for the bill, if approved on second and third reading by the house, would be the state Senate. Grange said they’ve been in touch with the senate and she expects the bill to move “quickly” through that chamber with no major changes.

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