The North Carolina Senate approved on Wednesday a pair of election and voting-related bills that include the latest attempts by Republicans to enact legislation that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed in past years and to remove his control over the State Board of Elections.
By identical party-line votes favoring the GOP, the chamber agreed to two measures that would affect election administration and the details of voting in the nation's ninth-largest state, where statewide elections are often close.
The bills’ sponsors contend the changes will rebuild trust in election results, protect lawful voting and help create election rules with bipartisan backing.
In one significant provision, traditional absentee ballots not received by county election offices by the time in-person balloting ends at 7:30 p.m. on the date of the election would no longer count.
Currently such ballots received by mail up to three days after the election can be counted if postmarked by the election date. Roughly 30 states require absentee ballots to arrive on or before the election date, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Requiring all ballots to be in on Election Day increases confidence and transparency in our elections,” said Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican and co-sponsor of both bills. “Every day that passes after Election Day with votes still coming in creates the possibility of distrust in the process.”
But Democrats say the bills represent unconstitutional power grabs by Republicans whose arguments are based on exaggerated claims of voter fraud and designed to suppress voter turnout.
Moving up the absentee ballot deadline and other changes are “going to dissuade people from voting, throw out ballots, suppress the votes of certain people in a way that I think is discriminatory and anti-democratic,” said Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat.
In another bill also approved 28-19, the State Board of Elections would increase from five members to eight, with its members no longer appointed by the governor but by legislative leaders of both major parties.
The shift in the absentee ballot deadline is among three provisions that Cooper vetoed in 2019 or 2021 and are contained in one of the bills that was approved.
A second previously vetoed provision bars election boards and county officials from from accepting private money to administer elections. And the other previously vetoed item directs state courts to send information to election officials about potential jurors being disqualified because they aren’t U.S. citizens for their eventual removal from voter rolls.
The pair of measures now go to the House, where, as in the Senate, the GOP now holds veto-proof majorities. Cooper’s previous vetoes on the three items had stuck at the time because Democrats held enough seats to uphold them.
The makeup of the State Board of Elections and county elections boards has been the subject of legislation or litigation since just before Cooper took office in early 2017. The governor appoints a five-member state board, usually with a 3-2 split favoring the governor’s party.
Previous GOP laws that altered the state board's composition were struck down by courts based on the argument the governor must have enough control over appointments to ensure state laws are carried out faithfully.
Republicans may have more hope the courts side with them now that GOP justices now hold a majority on the state Supreme Court.
Republican lawmakers argue the current 3-2 composition has allowed the governor’s party to make decisions on controversial matters. The proposed change would either require an evenly split board to build bipartisan consensus, or the board could include unaffiliated members.
“This bill is a genuine attempt to take partisanship out of elections by creating balance between the two major parties,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Newton of Cabarrus County said.
But the proposal could create a 4-4 split among Democrats and Republicans, which critics argue will lead to gridlock in election administration and reduced confidence in elections. The bill also would give legislative leaders appointment powers for county election boards.
“This is going to result in uncertified elections results, uncertainty and endless litigation,” said Minority Leader Dan Blue of Wake County, who called the bill “a clear violation of our state's constitution.”
Newton accepted that a lawsuit challenging the proposed board's structure was likely, but he defended the proposal as “far more constitutional” than the current state board structure.
The omnibus measure also alters rules for ballots cast at early voting sites by people who also are registering to vote. The provision explains when such same-day registrants must cast provisional ballots when they can't show a photo identification that helps confirm their name and address, and what they must do to ensure their votes count.