RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The COVID-19 outbreak could impact how people vote in November.
Democrats in the state Senate are urging legislators to make a variety of changes in light of public health concerns that could impact people’s ability to vote in person in the fall.
“No voter should really have to risk their lives to go vote. We should be able to protect our public health and protect our voting rights at the same time,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake).
Chaudhuri is calling for expanded access to absentee voting by mail by offering multiple ways to request a ballot, including email, in person, by phone and by mail and using signature verification instead of requiring two witnesses or a notary public to sign a ballot.
Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections, recently told lawmakers she expects between 30 and 40 percent of voters to request mail-in ballots. That would be a significant increase from 2016 when about 4 percent of voters requested their ballots that way.
How to adapt the state’s election process to the coronavirus outbreak is one of the issues legislators will have to address as they return to Raleigh next week for the first time to pass legislation specifically in response to the impacts of the disease.
“I think this is a perfect illustration of the adage, ‘don’t let a crisis go to waste,’” said Republican Senate leader Phil Berger in an interview with CBS 17. “We don’t know what the circumstances are going to be in November, and I just do not see that the whole list of things that are being proposed are things that are likely to gain bipartisan support.”
Berger pointed to changes the legislature approved to the absentee ballot process almost unanimously last year in response to fraud that occurred in the state’s ninth Congressional district.
Among the changes, only the voter or a close relative can request an absentee ballot. That is a change from when groups could fill out forms on behalf of voters to request those ballots.
“Given that experience in 2018, North Carolina needs to be very careful in making significant modifications to the absentee balloting process,” Berger said. “I am somewhat suspicious of the calls for this at this time, given the widespread support for the changes that were made just a few months ago.”
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC, said, “It was a good bill for that moment, but we’re in a different moment now.”
His group is also calling for additional resources for counties to recruit poll workers and a change to state law to ease the requirement that a majority of poll workers at a site have to live in that same precinct.
He noted the average poll worker in North Carolina is 70 years old, in the high-risk category for COVID-19, adding there “could be a poll worker shortage crisis if not addressed.”
This week in Wisconsin, health officials in Milwaukee said seven people contracted COVID-19 after taking part in the primary that occurred earlier this month. The seven people included six voters and one poll worker. The Associated Press reported and also noted it wasn’t clear how health officials determined those people got sick because of their participation in the primary. Health officials are trying to determine whether other people who tested positive contracted the disease at a polling place or elsewhere
The Board of Elections plans to use federal and state grant money through the Help America Vote Act and the CARES Act to respond to the expected increase in demand for voting by mail and to pay for cleaning supplies and protective masks for staff and poll workers at election sites.
The executive director of the state board of elections sent a letter on Wednesday to Gov. Roy Cooper and legislators about elections and COVID-19.
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