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Senate gives blessing to changes in election law

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(The Center Square) – Separate bills to make Election Day the hard deadline for voting and to give both major parties equal picks on state and county election boards moved to the House on Wednesday following Senate approval.

The upper chamber’s 28-19 vote along party lines approved both Senate Bill 747 and Senate Bill 749 over the objections of Democrats who said the legislation constitutes “a takeover of our election process.”

“We have a duty to ensure the integrity of our elections and a duty to ensure voters have confidence in our elections, regardless of who wins,” said Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, a sponsor of both bills.

Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said when he introduced SB749 last week that chamber leaders are largely in agreement, but “still having conversations about the local boards.”

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who attacked the bills as a Republican attempt to “ignore voters and rig elections,” appoints all 505 election board members – five at the state level, and five for each of the state’s 100 counties.

No Partisan Advantage in Elections would increase the state board to eight members, with appointments split evenly between party leaders in both chambers of the General Assembly. The bill would reduce county boards to four members, using the same appointment process.

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Wake County said deadlocked decisions at the state board would be resolved by the General Assembly under SB749, saying the bill is “a clear violation of our state’s constitution.” Republicans disputed that characterization, noting deadlocks would result in no change.

“The administration of elections is an executive function,” Blue said. “Seven forty-nine undermines our uniquely American system of checks and balances.”

Newton countered “SB749 is far more constitutional than what we have today,” citing a lawsuit settlement involving the Democratic majority State Board of Elections that extended the absentee ballot deadline to nine days after Election Day in 2020.

“Our belief is this is absolutely constitutional,” Newton said, referring to the bill.

Election law changes in SB747 include the elimination of the three-day grace period for absentee ballots to require them at election boards on Election Day, which would align North Carolina with more than 30 states with the same deadline.

The absentee ballot process begins roughly two months ahead of Election Day.

Other changes would ban private funding in elections; remove noncitizens from voter rolls; permit public inspection of absentee ballots; increase retention of election records to 22 months; strengthen the voter verification process for same-day ballots; and create two-factor authentication for absentee ballots by mail.

The Senate adopted three of 10 proposed amendments to the bill on Wednesday, including two from Democrats, to prohibit in-kind election donations, except for voting locations; create a pilot program for signature verification; and allow elections officials to contact absentee voters by email or phone to correct ballot issues. Among the rejected proposals were amendments that would have maintained the three-day grace period for absentee ballots, required notification to voters of rejected ballots, delayed implementation until 2025, and removed signature verification.

Cooper previously vetoed the provisions of SB747 regarding the absentee ballot deadline and private funding for elections as standalone bills. Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers (30 Senate, 72 House), the minimum threshold for override of gubernatorial veto.

Both bills were supported in committee hearings by American Majority and the North Carolina Elections Integrity Team, and opposed by the Democratic Party and Common Cause North Carolina.

Republicans have repeatedly noted that while SB749 would retain the current process involving major state party leaders submitting a list of nominees for elections boards, leaders in the General Assembly would not be required to appoint from those lists, providing an opportunity for unaffiliated voters to serve.

Through Saturday, North Carolina has more than 7.2 million registered voters, of which 35.9% are unaffiliated, 33.2% are Democrats and 30.2% are Republicans. Libertarian and Green Party voters comprise less than 1% combined.

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