WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Tuesday, Oct. 10, with its new veto-proof supermajority, the Republican-controlled North Carolina Legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of two voting and election laws, Senate Bill 747 and Senate Bill 749. The first is a broad voter suppression law that will alter a variety of critical election policies, while the latter pushes through a controversial — and previously found to be unconstitutional — restructuring of the state’s election boards.
Cooper has warned the laws will act in tandem to suppress voters across the state, just as Republican lawmakers intended. Ahead of the enactment, a bipartisan group of election officials urged legislators to reconsider S.B. 747 and S.B. 749 as the changes would “harm rather than protect the integrity of [North Carolina] elections.”
S.B. 747 would have invalidated more than 13,000 votes if it had been in effect during the 2020 presidential election.
The voter suppression law will ban private grants for election administration, launch a pilot program for signature verification and move up the deadline to receive mail-in ballots from three days after Election Day to 7:30 p.m. on Election Day.
Multiple Democratic state representatives cited concerns about the shortening of the mail-in ballot return window, from three days after Election Day to 7:30 p.m. on Election Day. According to the numbers presented by state Rep. Joe John (D) during floor remarks, if this rule had been in place during the 2020 election, “3,819 Democratic North Carolina citizens and voters, an almost equal 3,759 Republican citizens and voters and, strikingly, 5,929 unaffiliated citizens and voters” would not have had their ballots counted. That’s 13,507 votes tossed out.
North Carolina Rep. Cynthia Ball (D) noted to Democracy Docket last month that it was hard to pinpoint S.B. 747’s most concerning provision “as they interact and compound each other.” From the increased likelihood of voter intimidation in polling places due to the expansion of partisan poll observer freedoms to the new burdens placed on county boards of elections across the state in tandem with the banning of outside funding for elections, Ball hypothesized that North Carolinians are likely to encounter longer lines at polling locations, even during early voting. She will prioritize educating her constituents about the changes in every way she can since Republicans shot down her proposed amendment to the bill, which would have allocated $2 million in voter education.
Others argue that young and old voters alike will be caught in the onslaught of changes. Coming from rural Watauga County, Boone Town Councilmember Dalton George told Democracy Docket that he was concerned about the same-day registration changes that could negatively impact Boone’s large student population, who commonly utilize the convenient practice and who are sometimes “unaware of continued changes in election laws.” George also raised issues with the signature verification pilot program, which he sees affecting the “elderly population” as their signatures change.
Another state lawmaker, Rep. Pricey Harrison (D), is also worried about the signature matching requirement, which is promised to roll out across the whole state if the pilot is successful in the 10 designated counties. Specifically, she predicted in a statement to Democracy Docket, that success for the Republicans means, “seniors, the disabled, and, predominantly, those of color will have their ballots thrown out.”
Like George, Harrison noted that changes to same-day registration will have “a disparate impact on students, people from low-income communities, and homeless or transient individuals, all of whom may have barriers to responding to the one postcard that would get mailed to verify their address.”
Nonpartisan policy organization Carolina Forward reminded Democracy Docket that all of the provisions that advocates are rightfully concerned about are addressing the “thoroughly debunked myth” of “rampant voter fraud” in the state. More specifically, “After [the] ‘dragnet style’ subpoenas of dozens of counties looking for evidence, investigators found only 41 voters, out of more than 5 million votes cast, who illegally cast votes in 2016 – all of them by simple mistake, not intentional fraud. This mirrors Trump’s own ‘voter integrity commission,’ which folded quietly in 2018 without finding any evidence of significant fraud.”
The goal of Republicans and S.B. 747 is clear to those who oppose it. In a comment to Democracy Docket, the Young Democrats of North Carolina posit that the conservative lawmakers “aim to further restrict voting in North Carolina under the guise of election integrity… Republicans claim to be the party of freedom, but with every step they continue to strip freedoms away from North Carolinians.”
The majority of the bill will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024. It is estimated the new law will cost North Carolinians nearly $6 million.
The power-grabbing in S.B. 749 has been opposed at every level: from the current governor to the North Carolina Supreme Court and the majority of voters.
The power-grab law will remove the governor’s power to appoint election board members to the state board, granting it to the North Carolina Legislature instead. Additionally, the state boards will have an even number of Democrats and Republicans, departing from the current system that allows the party that holds the governor’s office (currently Democrats) to appoint a majority of state board members. Similarly, the bill will also change the composition of the state’s 100 county election boards to be four-member bipartisan boards appointed by lawmakers, making stalemates in decision-making more likely.
Since 2017, Cooper has raised the alarm on the Republicans’ attempts to restructure election boards across the state. He sued Republican lawmakers after they passed two bills that removed the power to oversee elections from the governor and placed it in the hands of legislators, just as S.B. 749 does. In January 2018, the North Carolina Supreme Court found that the power-grabbing legislation violated the state constitution’s separation-of-powers provisions as the two laws “imping[ed] upon the Governor’s ability to faithfully execute the laws.”
Not to be easily deterred, the conservative lawmakers tried again to restructure the election boards, this time via a constitutional amendment in the fall of 2018. Voters resoundingly rejected the amendment by 62%. Ahead of the 2018 election, all living former governors of the state (three Democrats and two Republicans) came together publicly and urged North Carolinians to vote against the amendment with former Gov. Jim Martin (R) asserting, “This is not about partisan politics. It’s about power politics, and it must be stopped.”
Reactions to the third and current attempt to restructure North Carolina’s election boards have been just as strong.
As amendments to the bill were debated on Sept. 12 in a committee meeting, Democratic lawmakers raised numerous flags about the lack of a tie-breaking mechanism — a deadlock at the county board level will result in dramatic cuts to early voting locations and hours since the state’s statute requires just one early voting site in each county, regardless of population. All attempts to amend the bill to avoid this were unsuccessful.
During the same committee meeting last month, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D), who has held the role since 1996 and won re-election all six times, railed against the transfer of the state election board to the secretary of state’s department. She argued the transfer “will disrupt years of progress” as the department is already on the brink of crisis due to chronic underfunding. Her concerns, backed by nearly three decades of experience, were ignored.
Mark Swallow, a former elections official and a member of Democracy Out Loud, also voiced his concern during the meeting. Referring to S.B. 749 as a “travesty,” he called out the Republican lawmakers for manufacturing gridlock, “You’re setting a booby trap of our elections process forever.”
During last month’s meeting, the only member of the public to praise S.B. 749 was Jim Womack, leader of the North Carolina Election Integrity Team, a chapter of an organization run by former Trump lawyer Cleta Mitchell. Womack also publicly lobbied North Carolina lawmakers as they considered amendments to the larger voter suppression bill, S.B. 747, and lauded the provision that now allows voters to challenge mail-in ballots in their entire county.
S.B. 749 will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024 — just ahead of the primaries.