Politics & Government

Florence response adds money for voter education, doesn’t relax absentee voting rules

North Carolina’s elections board would get money to educate voters uprooted by Hurricane Florence on how to cast ballots and would be required to distribute information to shelters and other organizations helping those residents, the legislature agreed Tuesday.

The education effort, along with extending the voter registration deadline by three days, to Oct. 15, in counties under federal disaster declarations, is state leaders’ response to the disruption brought by a devastating hurricane as election season enters its final phases.

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement would get $400,000 for its voter education efforts in flood-stricken counties, an email from the offices of House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger said.

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The legislature’s efforts don’t go as far as the state NAACP wanted. The civil rights group recommended extending the Oct. 12 voter registration deadline in 29 counties to Oct. 17, and making it easier for residents of those counties to cast absentee ballots.

“Given the unprecedented scale of the devastation and destruction left behind by Hurricane Florence, and the fact that we are just a few short weeks away from the state of the 2018 Early Voting Period, the NC NAACP requests that the State Board of Elections take immediate action to ensure that those suffering form this disaster are not denied access to the polls,” Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, state NAACP president, said in a letter to elections officials. Similar letters went to Gov. Roy Cooper and legislative leaders.

This is the second election cycle in a row in which a hurricane has had the potential to disrupt voting in the state.

After Hurricane Matthew two years ago, the state Democratic Party successfully sued to get the voter registration deadline extended in 36 counties.

“What we have asked for is simple accommodations that will allow for voters to know that when early voting begins and when Election Day comes around, your voice will be heard,” Caitlin Swain, co-director of Forward Justice, said at a news conference Monday with Spearman and others.

The state should make it easier for people in hurricane-stricken counties to obtain and file absentee ballots, Spearman said in the letter. The NAACP wants residents in the 29 counties to be able to vote absentee the way military or overseas voters do.

They would be able to receive and return ballots by mail, fax, or email, and request absentee ballots until 5 p.m., Nov. 5, the day before Election Day. (The deadline for returning military and overseas ballots is 7:30 p.m. on Election Day, unless they are sent by 12:01 a.m. on Election Day and the local board receives them at least one day before the county canvass, according to the State Board of Elections.)

The existing deadline for civilians living in the United States requesting absentee ballots is Oct. 30. (Ballots are returned by mail, dropped off at one-stop polling sites or at local elections offices no later than 5 p.m. on Election Day. Mailed ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received no later than three days after the election, according to State Board of Elections instructions.)

Churches and community organizations in the 29 counties should be able to help residents obtain, prepare and submit absentee ballots, Spearman wrote.

Displaced voters who are living outside their counties should be able to vote in person on Election Day using absentee ballots, Spearman’s letter said.

The Rev. Tyrone Watson of Robeson County, who appeared at Monday’s news conference, said people there were focusing on basic needs and aren’t thinking much about voting.

“We’re trying to relay that message, that we still have an important election coming up,” Watson said.

State Elections Director Kim Westbrook Strach can use emergency powers to make accommodations in counties hit by natural disasters.

In exercising those powers, Strach must consider 10 factors, according to a state rule that went into effect Monday. Among the considerations is whether the governor or the legislature had the opportunity to act.

Bonner: 919-829-4821; @Lynn_Bonner
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