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North Carolina’s top elections official tells lawmakers that county boards need more help

Photo courtesy of VPM News
Photo courtesy of VPM News

By all indications, North Carolina voters have adapted to major election law changes like the photo ID requirement and a new deadline for mail-in ballots.

More than 99% of in-person voters this March showed valid ID when they cast ballots in the primaries.

This story was reported and written by WUNC

While such numbers suggest a successful rollout of the ID requirement, North Carolina State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell reminded lawmakers Wednesday that voters who turn out for primaries are typically more civically engaged and informed than the overall electorate that turns out for general elections in a presidential year.

"That's part of why we've reserved the advertising dollars or structured the campaign the way we have," Brinson Bell told the North Carolina General Assembly's Joint Legislative Elections Oversight Committee.

The photo ID law was enacted in 2018 but held up by litigation until last year when the conservative majority state Supreme Court reinstated it in time for the 2023 municipal elections. The law had been declared unconstitutional by a lower court for its disparate impact on Black voters.

Democratic Senator Natasha Marcus wanted to know if state elections officials had any way of tracking the number of voters who didn't even try to cast a ballot because they thought they couldn't comply with the ID requirement.

"I feel like that's a gap in our understanding of the impact of the voter ID law," she said.

Brinson Bell said that is not something her office could determine.

This year's primaries was the ID law's first major election test but overall turnout was just about 24% of the state's 7.4 million registered voters.

The state's Republican-majority legislature enacted sweeping elections law changes ahead of the primaries, including the elimination of a three-day grace period for counting absentee-by-mail ballots postmarked by Election Day.

Brinson Bell said about 28,000 voters cast mail-in ballots in the primaries—1,128 of them arrived after the new deadline, which is the close of polls at 7:30 p.m. on Election Day. Consequently, they were not counted. Of those, 445 came from registered Democrats, 412 unaffiliated voters, 268 Republicans, and three Libertarians.

"Just shy of 800 of these 1,128 ballots were received within three days of the election," Brinson Bell said. Meaning, they would have been counted under the old three-day grace period.

As lawmakers prepare to start a legislative session aimed at adjusting the state's budget needs, Brinson Bell took the opportunity to alert them to what she cast as an alarming personnel trend: high turnover among county election directors.

Brinson Bell said there have been 60 changes in county election directors since 2019, some due to retirement.

"But what some of them have shared is that the fuel is just not in the fuel tank any longer," Brinson Bell said. "Election professionals have faced continued hostility, harrassment."

Brinson Bell told lawmakers understaffed county elections offices will need help from her office and she'll be seeking restored funding.

"One of our asks, even in short session, will be to return us to eight field support specialists," she informed committee members.

Republican legislators like Senator Paul Newton wanted to focus on what elections officials are doing to maintain clean voter rolls, telling Brinson Bell not to hesitate to ask for funds when it comes to bolstering election integrity.

"If we don't have integrity in our elections we don't have anything, right?" Newton asked rhetorically.

Brinson Bell reminded Newton that her office had wanted to — and been given funds to — join the Electronic Registration Information Center, ERIC, a multi-state compact through which member states share data to accurately track the movement and status of voters.

But legislative Republicans pulled the plug on joining ERIC as the organization came under partisan attack from the right, even though it was formed in 2012 by a coalition of seven red and blue states with assistance from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Republican Representative Dennis Riddell of Alamance County told Brinson Bell he didn't share her enthusiasm for ERIC.

"I think ERIC was also mostly a private information mining excursion more than it was actual electioneering help," Riddell said.

Republicans like Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger have hailed ERIC as an effective tool for maintaining accurate voter rolls.