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Sen. Ford backs new set of election-related bills

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Sen. Carl Ford, a Republican, has signed onto another set of bills aimed at modifying elections in North Carolina.

Ford, a member of the Senate Redistricting and Elections committee, joined nearly 20 other Republicans in March to sponsor Senate Bill 326, the Election Integrity Act, which requires absentee ballots to be received by county boards of elections no later than 5 p.m. on Election Day, regardless of when it was postmarked. Among other things, 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 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.

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.

S.B. 326 was re-referred to the Rules and Operations of the Senate committee last week after nearly three months of no movement.

Ford is now backing two other measures seeking similar changes. If enacted, S.B. 724 would establish an online portal for voters who are visually impaired to cast an absentee ballot, allow for online voter registration and fund a program to identify and assist voters with a photo ID. The online portals would be maintained by the State Board of Elections.

Ford said constituents continue to request legislation ensuring voter integrity, which he describes as “one vote for every legal citizen.”

The bill requires absentee ballots submitted via the online portal for voters who are visually impaired to have them in no later than 7:30 p.m. on the day of the election, including all necessary signatures.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 31 states require absentee by mail ballots to arrive by Election Day. North Carolina is one of 37 states that currently allow early voting with no restrictions.

An online voter registration portal would allow eligible voting-age teenagers to register as long as they possess either a driver’s license, including a learner’s permit or provisional license, or a special ID for non-operators. The deadline to register would be set at 25 days before the primary or general election, but an individual who becomes eligible to vote after 25 days prior could apply on the day of the election. State law also allows same-day registration during the early voting period.

Lastly, the bill calls for funding a program that would identify and provide acceptable forms of photo ID to voters currently without. Like the Election Integrity Act, Ford’s newly supported bill calls for the program to include a mobile component to visit those individual voters when needed.

Ford said photo ID is among the chief priorities when it comes to election integrity. And though the issue continues to be debated by federal courts, Ford said Republicans have been fighting this battle since 2013 and will continue on. 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.

“If you don’t have a photo ID, we’re going to give you one for free,” Ford said. “If you’re bedridden, we’re going to come to your house.”

A second newly supported bill by Ford, S.B. 725, would prohibit the State Board of Elections, county boards of elections and county boards of commissioners from accepting private monetary donations, directly or indirectly, for conducting elections or employing individuals on a temporary basis. It would also prevent acceptance of such funds to employ election workers on a temporary basis. For county boards of commissioners, the restriction would apply to employing individuals on a temporary basis for elections.

Current law allows elections boards at the state and local level to receive funding from public sources, but nothing prohibits them from seeking grants or accepting funds from private sources. North Carolina General Statute 163-37 states county boards of commissioners are responsible for appropriating “reasonable and adequate funds necessary for the legal functions of the county board of elections,” while G.S. 163-284 allows each municipality and special district to “reimburse the county board of elections for the actual cost involved in the administration” of that election.

With the threat of the pandemic to voters’ safety, nonprofits stepped in to provide grants to states across the nation for the 2020 general election. A group called Center for Tech and Civic Life raised more than $250 million for the grants, and the North Carolina State Board of Elections accepted a grant totaling $2.2 million.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life reports that based on preliminary submissions about how the grants were used, the majority of jurisdictions receiving the funds used them for temporary staffing, mailing absentee ballots and other supplies and election equipment. It did not list Rowan County as one of the 96 counties in North Carolina that accepted grant funding.

Ford said lawmakers want to prevent the funneling of private money into boards of elections, regardless of party. Overall, the measures he supports will make the voting process “easier and straightforward.”

Both S.B. 724 and 725 were re-referred to the Senate Rules committee on June 9.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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