NC needs more funding to carry out elections, board director tells lawmakers

The most recent election went mostly smoothly, but North Carolina faces challenges in its election administration that will need more money to address, State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell told lawmakers on Wednesday.

“It’s as critical to keep us operational as it is our power plants or our water system,” she said. “So we should fund elections with that recognition.”

Speaking to the Joint Legislative Committee on Elections, Brinson Bell delivered a report on the 2024 primary election, fielding questions from lawmakers about potential issues in future elections and addressing recent criticism about the State Board’s early voting plans.

Implementing new election laws

Going into the 2024 primary election, the state had several new election laws to implement, including voter ID, a new absentee ballot deadline and new rules for poll observers.

Brinson Bell reported that 99.94% of all voters showed a valid photo ID when voting in person.

While the State Board did engage in an advertising campaign to remind voters about the new ID requirement, Brinson Bell noted that voters in primary elections tend to be more civically engaged.

“As we go into the general election, when we have a population of folks who very often do not vote except for a presidential general election... we know we’re going to need to reach a much broader, larger volume of individuals to make sure that they’re informed,” she said.

This election also featured a change in the deadline for absentee ballots. Previously, if ballots arrived at the county board of elections office within three days of Election Day, they would be counted. A bill passed last year changed the deadline to 7:30 p.m. on Election Day.

Brinson Bell reported that 1,128 absentee ballots came in after the deadline and were therefore not counted. Nearly 800 of those came in within three days of the election and would have been counted under the old law.

Informing voters of changes to elections isn’t cheap, and the state faces staffing issues as well, Brinson Bell said.

Since 2019, there have been 60 changes in county election directors, most of which were retirements or resignations.

“Election professionals have faced continued hostility, harassment, substantial changes in their workload and the demands on them,” Brinson Bell said.

She asked lawmakers to consider funding more field support positions so the state can help underfunded or understaffed counties.

Changes to early voting timeline

In recent weeks, some Republicans have criticized the State Board for changing its timeline for approving early voting plans.

Typically, counties are required to submit their early voting plans in August. But earlier this month, an email to county boards stated that these plans would be due by May 7.

The chair of the North Carolina Republican Party, Jason Simmons, sent a letter to the State Board on Tuesday accusing board members of “blatant partisanship of historical fashion,” for the timeline change, suggesting that the board was attempting to get around legislation currently pending in court.

Republican lawmakers passed Senate Bill 747 last year, drastically altering the makeup of state and local election boards. The law makes all election boards evenly bipartisan — a departure from the current structure where the governor’s party has a 3-2 majority. The law also removes all appointment power from the governor and gives it to state lawmakers.

Though SB 749 was enacted in October after Republicans overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto, the bill has been stuck in litigation and has not gone into effect.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Republican Sen. Warren Daniel said several lawmakers had heard from county boards of elections about the new deadline.

“Why is the board doing this over the objections of so many local boards?” he asked.

Brinson Bell said the decision was made by the board’s chair, Democrat Alan Hirsch.

“The rationale from the chair has been that there is the potential for uncertainty, for there to be changes in our election processes,” she said. “Right now, one of the things that we do know is that we need early voting plans as we head into the November elections.”

If counties cannot unanimously approve their early voting plans, the State Board decides.