by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
Most election reform is unavoidably episodic. Policymakers review what went right or wrong in the last election and adjust election laws accordingly.
For the most part, that is the case with Senate Bill 326, the Election Integrity Act. It contains several reforms to address needs made plain by the 2020 election.
Stopping private election funding
The first thing the bill would do is forbid election boards (state and county) from accepting “private monetary donations for the purpose of administering elections or employing individuals on a temporary basis.” While there are vigorous debates over private involvement in some traditional government sectors, such as waste management, I believe most people would agree that private funding of elections enters dangerous territory.
The danger of private funding of elections is not just the obvious potential for money to buy influence. Private funds could also be directed in such as way as to try to boost turnout in areas where certain candidates tend to do better, as noted in an article by PJ Media:
In case you still don’t follow: Hundreds of millions of private charitable dollars flowed into key urban county election offices in battleground states. The same private philanthropic largess did not reach red counties. Urban counties were able to revolutionize government election offices into Joe Biden turnout machines.
Much of the private election funding in the 2020 election came from the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), a “center-left election reform advocacy group” founded by former employees of the New Organizing Institute (NOI), an organization that trained digital organizers for Democratic and progressive groups. The Washington Post described NOI as the “Democratic Party’s Hogwarts for digital wizardry.” CTCL received hundreds of millions of dollars from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, for the 2020 election.
To see if there was any partisan tendency in CTCL’s pattern of giving to election boards in North Carolina, I looked at their list of grants to see how counties the CTCL funded voted in comparison with counties the CTCL did not fund. For my comparison, I used the total vote share of the two major-party candidates in the 2020 US Senate race.
While CTCL gave to both Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning counties, the 33 counties given CTCL funds backed Democrat Cal Cunningham 52.7% to 47.3%, while the other 67 counties went for Republican Thom Tillis 53.6% to 46.4%. Regardless of whether the partisan bias in CTCL funding during the 2020 election in North Carolina was intentional, it existed.
The next logical step in the privatization of election funding would be for conservative groups to disproportionately fund Republican-leaning areas. That is an arms race we should avoid.
Adjustments to absentee voting deadlines
SB 326 would also adjust the functional deadline for county boards to receive absentee ballots to election day at 5:00. The current deadline is three days after election day. I wrote on March 1 about why changing that functional deadline to election day would add clarity to the election process and help reassure voters about the integrity of absentee-by-mail voting. It would also put North Carolina in the norm regarding absentee ballot deadlines:
According to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, 32 states, including all-mail states like Oregon and Colorado, require election officials to receive absentee ballots on or before election day. The change would also remove the problem of how to handle mail-in votes with no legible postmark on them.
An additional benefit of the adjustment in the absentee ballot return date is that it would decrease the number of ballots that are counted after election day, which would help clarify election winners sooner and potentially increase confidence that the ballot counting process was done fairly. It is an important consideration given that only 49% of North Carolina voters believe that the 2022 elections will be free and fair.
The deadline to request an absentee ballot would be increased from seven days before election day to fourteen days, in keeping with recommendations from the US Postal Service, to give voters plenty of time to request, receive, complete, and return their ballots.
Funds for voter IDs
The last item in the bill would be a one-time, $5 million appropriation to “establish a program to identify individuals in this State who need photo identification to vote in person.” The program would have a “mobile component” that would visit voters in need of an ID.
This item would be the latest in a series of concessions on voter ID since the General Assembly passed the voter ID law in December 2018. In April 2019, they weakened the verification process for student and government worker IDs and let university officials off the hook for that assuring that legal procedures were followed when issuing student IDs that could be used for voting.
As part of the bipartisan coronavirus elections bill passed in June 2020, the General Assembly included “public assistance” IDs in the list of photo IDs that could be used for voting. The lack of public assistance IDs in the list of acceptable photo IDs was a major part of injunctions against the voter ID law in both federal and state courts.
As with those earlier concessions, I doubt that the funding to help people get voter IDs will mollify opponents of North Carolina’s constitutionally mandated voter ID law.
Even though SB 326 consists of several beneficial corrections to North Carolina’s voting laws, it will likely be subjected to much political wrangling before its eventual passage.