GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – The “jumbo jet of election reform” that the North Carolina Senate delivered to the House for ratification nearly two months ago appears on the runway to go supersonic in scope.

The House on Friday night dropped a lengthy committee substitute for Senate Bill 747 – which with its companion SB 749 earned their nickname from Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Buncombe) – that the Senate passed along party-line votes on June 21. Elections Law & Campaign Finance Committee Chair Rep. Grey Mills (R-Iredell) also alerted members that they would gather at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday to consider the bill, which would offer significantly more detail on a variety of issues introduced – and some not introduced – by the Senate, including observers at the polls.

Mills’ committee had been idle since June as lawmakers advanced other issues they felt more immediate, struggled to adopt a budget (which hasn’t happened) and then went off for weeks of basic inactivity because of the budget impasse, vacations and the mathematics of veto overrides.

Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford), the House majority whip, on Wednesday had hinted that there could be significant changes in election law yet to come from the House when he responded to a question about the process for adopting constitutional amendments and two bills he had offered to create them.

State Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro)
Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford)

One of those is House Bill 123, his offering from February that would create a constitutional amendment to reduce and restrict the number of days for early, in-person voting.

“We are working through a variety of election law issues,” Hardister said. “If we move forward with an elections bill, it is likely that the elements of several bills will be combined into one. At this time, conversations are ongoing, and we have not settled on a final product.”

Hardister did not respond to follow-up questions about possible changes, and neither did Mills nor committee Vice Chair Allison Dahle (D-Wake). Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth), embroiled in budget negotiations, and Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), attending a conference, said they had not heard about voting changes.

But those changes dropped late Friday afternoon when Mills announced the meeting and the office of House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) distributed the bill to Harrison, a committee member, and others. Lambeth said later that he had heard a conference substitute had dropped. Several sources emailed about the new proposal but did not respond immediately.

The altered version of SB 747 does not specifically limit the number of days for early voting, but it offers even more stringent changes than the Senate had proposed.

Harrison, who was speaking in Indianapolis, said she had not had a chance to review every nuance but that the new bill was “problematic.” The substitute checks in at 42 pages, more than 50% longer than the 24 pages of the original, and it dives into any number of additional issues that include observers for voting processes, certification of electors for presidential and vice presidential elections, which have been the subject of criminal charges across the nation.

SB 747 was controversial in its original form because it proposed restrictions for mail-in voting, banned counties from receiving grants to help pay for elections, altered the rules for same-day voter registration to make those ballots provisional and made it easier to accuse someone of fraud.

Democrats and voting rights advocates also had complained that Republicans consulted with attorney Cleta Mitchell, one of those who advised former President Donald Trump in his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election he lost to President Joe Biden.

Mitchell now lives in North Carolina and heads a group called the Election Integrity Network, and WRAL reported that Mitchell met with lawmakers and that language in the Senate’s bill mirrors some of the proposals from her organization.

The committee’s replacement bill appeared to include some of the language but not all the specifics from SB 749 – titled “No Partisan Advantage in Elections” – which changed the make-up of state and county boards of election by removing appointments by the governor, with even numbers of members appointed evenly by both chambers and both parties.

This substitute for SB 747 must clear Mills’ committee before it can move to the House floor. There could be amendments offered by both sides, but nearly a dozen proposals in the Senate were tabled by Republicans.

Any bill that advances out of the House would have to return to the Senate for another approval and then go to Gov. Roy Cooper, who almost certainly would veto this bill. All of his vetoes this session so far have been overridden by the GOP supermajorities.

The House’s version said all of the first 43 sections of the bill, with the exception of Section 37 – which deals with absentee ballots and would go into effect on Dec. 1 – would go into effect on Jan. 1 and be applied by the primary in March. Later sections on criminal charges, the jury duty records discussed in the Senate and pilot programs for absentee ballots would go into effect in July.

Early voting changes

NCBE spokesperson Patrick Gannon, said the issue of reducing the number of days for early voting hasn’t been an issue considered by the state board.

“The full State Board of Elections has not discussed this that staff is aware of, and we are not aware if this legislation is moving forward,” Gannon told WGHP. “We are monitoring all pending legislation that pertains to elections and providing information when requested by legislators or legislative staff, as we do routinely during legislative sessions.”

And although limits on the number of days is not specifically mentioned in the House’s version of SB 747, the committee’s changes include a new Part 5 that addresses one-stop early voting and requires unanimous votes of all members of a county board of elections to establish the hours and sites for early voting in a county.

The passage says that a county may elect not to offer early voting and that if a county board of elections has considered proposed plans for early voting that can’t be reached unanimously, the board can ask the state board to step in. The state board can consider options voted on by the board and alternative petitions from a county board member.

“The State Board, in that plan, shall take into consideration whether the Plan for Implementation disproportionately favors any party, racial or ethnic group, or candidate,” the bill says. The same holds true for sites. The bill specifies the timing of selecting early sites and several other factors:

  • All early voting sites in a county must be open on the same days and specific time periods. For instance, if there are five sites designated for Monday, then that must be the case for each weekday. They also must be open during the same hours each day.
  • Weekday sites must be open from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and if a county “opens one-stop early voting sites on Saturdays or Sundays other than the last Saturday or Sunday before the election during the period required by [statute], then all one-stop early voting sites shall be open for the same number of hours uniformly throughout the county on those Saturdays.” As has been the case, all one-stop early voting sites shall be open on the last Saturday before the election, for the hours required by law.
  • There are also requirements for staffing required to be in place and observers permitted at early-voting sites.

More observers

There are amended language and subdivisions added to the Senate’s changes about the retention of voting records and the prohibition on direct or in-kind private donations toward election expenses, but there are extensive new requirements for the numbers and the rights of observers who would be assigned to monitor voting.

How many and how these observers would be appointed are consistent with the Senate, but the nuance of changes includes the removal of a specification by the Senate that the persons appointed by the county or the state party leaders “must have good moral character.” Observers are not required to take an oath.

But there are many more requirements for how those observers are chosen, are allocated and what they can do while they are on duty in the precincts during an election. Officials must have the names and schedule for those chosen observers at least 24 hours before election day.

Here are some of those expanded proposals about observers:

  • No more than three observers from the same political party shall be inside a voting enclosure at any time, but there can be substitutes after 4-hour periods. These observers can’t be candidates. There are allowances for unaffiliated observers.
  • A county board of elections or a chief judge of a voting place can challenge the appointment of an observer “for good cause, which shall include evidence that the observer could impact the conduct of the election.”
  • Unless an observer is seen by an elections officials as interfering with a voter’s privacy, the observer will be allowed to take notes (including on an electronic device), “listen to conversations between a voter and elections official that take place in the voting place, provided the conversation is related to election administration,” move around all areas of the voting place, leave and re-enter, to talk on a phone outside the voting enclosure, watch the setup and teardown of the voting place.
  • Observers can’t “look at, photograph, videotape, or otherwise record the image of any voter’s marked ballot,” impede the entrance to the voting place, interfere with election officials, including the transport of sealed ballot boxes, engage in electioneering or participate in phone calls inside the voting place.
  • Observers can take photographs of the election place before and after voting.
  • A chief judge may remove an observer for violating the rules but only after oral or written warnings, and the observer has a right to appeal.
  • An observer may obtain copies of the “list of persons who have voted at each voting place during the times the voting place is open for voting.” Some counties must allow the observer to inspect records to create a list of who has voted at each site. The rules must allow those lists to be obtained at least three times a day.
  • There also is a specific section about observers for or against local alcoholic beverage control elections, which are aligned by “for” and “against” rather than by party affiliation. County boards of elections would choose these observers.

In addition to observers, the proposed bill adds a new role called “runner,” which is a person designated by the chair of a county political party to obtain copies of “the list of persons who have voted at each voting place during the times the voting place is open for voting.”  The NCBE would designate when this list would be available for runners to pick up.

Other issues

There was much debate when the Senate considered its bill about the same-day voter registration, and House is suggesting even stricter processes that call the ballot cast by someone who does not have a photo ID showing a correct/record-matching address would vote “a retrievable ballot” (as opposed to a “provisional ballot”). Such an ID must be confirmed within two business days by NC driver’s license number or Social Security number, the bill says.

This includes a mandated database search for duplicate registration. Some notices returned by the postal service can be tossed out, and the House removes the option of the voter returning to the elections office with the required documents. The process for challenging a voter’s ballot is much more specific in the House’s document, and the details about casting absentee ballots also are more significant.

Likewise, the minutiae are much more pronounced in detailing how the governor – and only the governor – would certify the electors for president and vice president.

Perhaps these details were inspired by the criminal indictment of former President Donald Trump, who faces charges about fake electors that his supporters tried to get approved in several contested states. There are state-level indictments of fake electors in Michigan and Wisconsin and perhaps coming in Arizona and Georgia. Only the governor can certify and reveal the electoral results in this election by the deadlines established in federal law.