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Rowan’s Sen. Ford backs ‘Election Integrity Act’ to move up absentee ballot deadlines

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Sen. Carl Ford, a China Grove Republican, has joined nearly 20 other Republican lawmakers in support of the “Election Integrity Act,” which could move up the deadline to request and submit an absentee by mail ballot.

Senate Bill 326 proposes a few changes, with the biggest being absentee ballots must be received by county boards of elections no later than 5 p.m. on Election Day, regardless of when it was postmarked, in order to be counted. The bill also calls for absentee by mail ballot requests to be completed and received by the county boards of elections no later than 5 p.m. on the second Tuesday before the election. The bill would maintain current law that allows absentee by mail ballot requests and unfilled ballots to be sent no earlier than 60 days prior to a statewide general election in an even-numbered year and no earlier than 50 days in other elections.

The current law, outlined in North Carolina General Statute 163-231 (a) (6), allows absentee ballots to be counted if they arrive three days after Election Day as long as they’re postmarked on or before Election Day. A controversial legal settlement by the State Board of Elections last year, however, extended that deadline to up to nine days after Election Day for the 2020 general election due to the pandemic.

The primary sponsors of the bill are the co-chairs of the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee, including Warren Daniel, R-46, Paul Newton, R-36 and Ralph Hise, R-47.

Ford, who represents the 33rd District, said the bill has only been up for discussion so far. It was referred on March 22 to the Senate Redistricting and Elections committee — of which Ford is a member. The biggest questions addressed about the bill, he said, related to the requirement of a photo ID — an issue that’s still being debated in the courts.

A federal court has already ruled the state’s photo ID law, passed in 2018, can proceed, but the issue is still in state court, where a trial is expected to begin this spring.

The bill includes a provision granting the State Board of Elections $5 million in nonrecurring funds to implement a program that would identify voters in need of an acceptable photo identification. The program would also include a mobile unit to seek out those voters and assist with obtaining an acceptable form of identification to cast a vote.

Another provision in the bill would prohibit the state and county boards of elections from accepting private monetary donations for the purpose of staffing or operating an election.

Ford attributes the main concerns regarding absentee by mail voting to the settlement reached by the state board, which was led by a Democrat and had more Democratic representation on the bipartisan board, without lawmakers’ input. In North Carolina, state lawmakers are responsible for setting and modifying election-related laws, but the settlement led to an emergency order issued by Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

“We just want to make sure there’s one vote per citizen,” Ford said.

He added that North Carolina still allows for a longer period for requesting and submitting absentee by mail ballots compared to other states. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 31 states require absentee by mail ballots to arrive by Election Day, including “blue” states such as Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.

For that reason, Ford says there is still plenty of time to cast an absentee by mail vote, especially if one knows ahead of time whether they’ll be absent and unable to vote in person.

“If you want to vote, you can vote and get it done right,” he said.

During the November 2020 general election in North Carolina, nearly 700,000 absentee by mail votes were cast for President Joe Biden, while 278,000 were cast for former President Donald Trump. The North Carolina State Board of Elections reports that 18% of all ballots cast in the November 2020 election were from absentee by mail ballots, while early voting comprised more than 60% of all votes cast. In Rowan County, a little more than 10,000 absentee by mail ballots were cast.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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