RALEIGH -- With social distancing recommended by state by federal health officials, many older adults have serious concerns about their safety if forced to go to crowded polling places in November. AARP members asked us to advocate for changes and most of our recommendations were included in House Bill 1169, an act to make various changes to the law related to elections and to appropriate funds to the state board of elections in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Older adults are the state’s most active voters, but they are also the most susceptible to COVID-19,” AARP North Carolina Director Mike Olender explains. “Voters ages 60 and above vote at much higher percentages than younger voters. But the big question in this year’s election is will they feel safe?” he asked.
House Bill 1169 improves access to and the processing of an alternative option – absentee voting – while at the same time improving the safety and staffing of the polls.
“AARP NC strongly believes that safe elections don’t have to be done at the expense of fair elections. AARP is committed to protecting the integrity of the ballot box while also fighting against policies that are either a barrier to seniors that are homebound or may put them at risk in order to cast a ballot,” said AARP NC Manager of Advocacy Lisa Riegel.
Improvements at the polling site
Concern with COVID-19 means staffing the polls may be more difficult. The bill provides flexibility in the filling of positions for precinct officials. In addition, increased funding is provided to protect workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) and other safety precautions for both workers and voters.
Voting by Absentee Ballot
In a practice dating back to the election of 1864, during the Civil War, both Union and Confederate soldiers cast ballots from the battlefield to be tallied back home. In the late 1800s, absentee voting was expanded to assist the seriously ill. However, the number of those ballots was small, so it did not require much new infrastructure or support. Currently, in North Carolina, approximately 4-5% vote using an absentee ballot. With the social distancing recommended by state and federal health authorities and concerns of exposure to COVID-19, voting by absentee ballot is expected to dramatically increase to about 40-50%.
In anticipation of absentee voting to increase by ten-fold this fall, Riegel is hopeful that HB-1169 will help ensure that the state is ready to process the absentee ballots without any glitches like the ones that hampered the unemployment claim processing problem. To prepare for this increase, HB 1169 makes changes to make access to a ballot easier as well as funding the State Board of Elections to prepare for the increased volume such as by printing more ballots and adding an online portal. Here are some of the provisions:
· Reducing witness requirement from two to one witness which will be important for those that are isolated at home alone or with only one other person to avoid exposure to COVID-19;
· Allow absentee request forms to be e-mailed or faxed to county board of elections;
· To increase integrity of process – require applications to have a bar code allowing the county board of elections and the voter to track a voted ballot following its return to the county board;
· Clarify that voters may call the State Board or a county board of elections and request a blank absentee ballot request form be sent to the voter by mail, e-mail, or fax.
· Require the State Board to create an online portal for voters to submit online requests for absentee ballots by September 1, 2020.
Residents of nursing homes or other long-term care settings that want to vote by absentee ballot will also be challenged if those facilities are off limits to the outside world. This bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the State Board of Elections (State Board) to develop a program on how to safely allow multi-partisan teams to assist registered voters within these congregate living facilities in requesting, voting, or returning the voter's absentee ballot.
The important changes in HB 1169 were led by House Rules Chairman David Lewis along with the primary bipartisan bill sponsors Representatives Dahle, Grange, Hall and Harrison.
Representative David Lewis (R) said, “We are proud of the work this bipartisan group has done to bring consensus solutions, working with the State Board of Elections every step of the way. Our shared priority is to ensure every voter in North Carolina has safe access to the ballot and confidence in our election results.“
Opposition to Absentee Ballots
AARP also looked into the comments from some members who shared concerns over expanded absentee balloting and fraud. However, that link has been difficult to prove. According to the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL), a bigger concern than the small amount of fraud reported is possible coercion by family members, unions or religious leaders. Relatedly, a concern of all who want a fair election, is to prevent ballot harvesting, or the practice of allowing political operatives and others to collect voters’ ballots and turn them in en masse to polling stations. This practice has drawn bipartisan concerns of fraud from election watchers.
An important provision of the HB 1169 is a way to prevent the harvesting that occurred during the 2018 election in NC District 9.
Lisa Riegel explains, “The bottom line is that we already know that absentee voting will be popular this fall. With a Presidential race, 13 House races, one Senate race, and countless state and local offices, we need to ensure that North Carolina is ready with no system glitches and that every voter will have an opportunity to safely participate. HB 1169 put in protocols to protect the integrity of the election process.”
The bill passed the House on May 28th with only 3 dissenting votes and now heads to the senate.
Representative Allison Dahle (D) touting the bipartisan nature of the bill stated “This bipartisan group has developed consensus solutions, working with the State Board of Elections every step of the way. Our shared priority is to ensure every voter in North Carolina has safe access to the ballot and confidence in our election results.“
AARP North Carolina is planning to assist our members in understanding these new requirements and processes once the bill is finalized.
Share your story
AARP NC is committed to states protecting the integrity of the ballot box while also fighting against cumbersome policies that are either a barrier to seniors that are homebound or may put them at risk in order to cast a ballot.
As North Carolina considers changes further changes to voting laws we want to hear from you. Let us know if and why you plan on voting absentee this fall.