Temporary and permanent changes to mail-in absentee ballot rules in North Carolina and funds to improve safety at in-person voting sites this year during the COVID-19 pandemic received overwhelming approval Thursday by the state House.

The measure, hammered out by members of both parties, is designed to ensure access to voting by all those who wish to cast ballots this fall, especially those at higher risk for developing complications from the coronavirus. Mail-in requests and ballots are expected to spike compared with previous years.

“This bill preserves the ability for all North Carolinians to vote safely,” said Rep. Holly Grange, a New Hanover County Republican, while debating the legislation approved 116-3 and now heading to the Senate for consideration.

The measure expands the options for registered voters to receive an absentee ballot request form. By September, there would be an online portal for voters to submit the complete request. And this fall, only one witness would be needed to sign the envelope containing a filled-out ballot.

More than $27 million also would be distributed to the state and county election boards for equipment and security upgrades, as well as to recruit poll workers expected to be in shorter supply. Money also would have to be used to purchase personal protective equipment, which would be used at early-voting and Election Day precinct sites.

A few Democrats criticized the measure, saying it failed to include recommendations by the executive director of the State Board of Elections that asked for prepaid postage on ballot envelopes and to make Election Day a state holiday. Still, a Democratic co-sponsor said bipartisan legislation like this measure doesn't always mean complete satisfaction.

“Neither party got everything they wanted,” said Rep. Allison Dahle, a Wake County Democrat. “We worked together to find a solution that both sides of the aisle were comfortable with.”

Some criticized a provision that would add public assistance identification cards to the list of qualifying photo IDs that election officials can accept for voting, calling it a “poison pill."

A photo voter ID mandate was added to the North Carolina Constitution in 2018, but the requirement still won't be enforced this year because of litigation blocking it. Republicans have pressed for photo ID for the past decade, saying it will build confidence in elections. Many legislative Democrats see the ID requirement as unnecessary or a tool for voter suppression.

“Photo ID is not a pressing issue affecting any vote,” Rep. Zach Hawkins, a Durham County Democrat, said on the floor.

Senate Republicans are largely on board with the COVID-19 legislation. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper also would be asked to sign any final bill into law.

For the most up-to-date information on coronavirus in North Carolina, visit our Live Updates blog here. WFDD wants to hear your stories — connect with us and let us know what you're experiencing.

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