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North Carolina election bills unlikely to become laws after Senate votes

By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

North Carolina Senate Republicans pushed a trio of election measures through their chamber on Wednesday, including one that would prohibit counting mail-in absentee ballots that aren’t received by local officials by Election Day.

But unlike other GOP-led legislatures in battleground states that have passed voting restrictions this year, North Carolina has a Democratic governor who could veto the measures, leaving Republicans powerless to override Gov. Roy Cooper if Democrats continue to stay united in opposition. The measures passed the Senate on a party-line vote and now go to the House, where Republicans also have been weighing absentee changes.

Current law allows ballot envelopes postmarked by the day of the election to count if received within a three-day grace period. Although that idea was backed unanimously in separate legislation a dozen years ago by the legislature, Republicans now say the wait for ballots to trickle in delays the finality of results, and moving up the deadline will help lead to earlier outcomes the public wants.

“The bill will build confidence in our election system,” Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican and bill sponsor said during the debate. “Everyone saw how long it took North Carolina to declare winners in the (2020) presidential election and our U.S. Senate election. And this should help alleviate those concerns.”

Senate Democrats and their allies this week called the absentee ballot bill and the other two measures a signal by GOP legislators to the Republican base that they are responding to unfounded allegations made by former President Donald Trump and allies that question the presidential election results.

Scores of state election bills have been introduced by Republicans this year, and efforts in Georgia and Texas to pass some have led to partisan conflict.

“All the circumstances show that there was no issue with the integrity of the North Carolina election,” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Wake County said Tuesday at a news conference. “The Republican playbook calls for an allegation that there was not integrity in the 2020 election.”

About 30 states already don’t accept absentee ballots that are received after Election Day. The GOP proposal was amended Wednesday to set the deadline for 7:30 p.m. of the day of the general or primary election — when voting precincts close — rather than 5 p.m., as previously proposed. But the bill still passed on the same party-line vote.

Senate Republicans also approved by similar margins a measure that would bar election boards and county commissioners from accepting private money to run elections, and a bill to allow potential voters to file registration forms online at the State Board of Elections.

Republican sponsors of bills have tried to avoid the national allegations during debate, arguing instead that Democrats actually voted Wednesday against bills that would expand voting access and trust. Trump narrowly won North Carolina’s electoral votes last fall amid an election with record turnout and few voting problems.

“This bill is not about a national narrative,” Daniel said.

But GOP legislators remain angry about a legal settlement reached between the Democratic-controlled State Board of Elections and a union-affiliated group that extended the grace period for mail-in ballots to nine days for 2020 only due to the pandemic and postal delays. Daniel said the absentee ballot bill sends a message to Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat whose office was involved in the settlement.

Democrats said Republicans want to get rid of the grace period all together because Democrats turned in twice as many absentee ballots than Republicans in the 2020 general elections during the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans traditionally have used the method most.

“So now that lots of Democrats use mail-in ballots, they’re a problem?” asked Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. “That’s not a good reason or a fair reason to change election law and throw out ballots.”

More than 11,600 ballots received during the first three days after the 2020 Election Day were lawfully counted. Republicans counter that the number of mail-in ballots likely will be much less in 2022, as voters have over a year to learn about the new deadline. Final results still won’t get finalized until after county and state canvasses.

Republicans want to bar private donations to run elections because they say the money can leave the perception of partisan influence. But critics say the donations can make up for underfunding by government. The state and nearly all counties received over $4.6 million combined last year to buy voting pens, send mailers and pay election workers bonuses.

The online voter registration bill also describes the legislature’s intent to help voters obtain photo identification. A 2018 law implementing a voter ID mandate was opposed by most legislative Democrats and remains blocked in litigation.

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