In the 2020 elections, North Carolina was one of the last states to finish counting its votes and declare the results in a handful of closely contested races, including president and U.S. Senate.
Now Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly want to stop similar situations from happening in the future, by requiring elections officials to stop collecting mail-in ballots after Election Day. That would be a significant change from the current law — which for years has allowed a three-day grace period for mail-in ballots to arrive after the election and be counted, as long as they were postmarked on or before Election Day.
The state Senate approved Senate Bill 326 on a vote of 29 to 21, sending it to the House.
Just less than half of U.S. states have an extended deadline, while a little more than half have the Election Day deadline Republicans want for North Carolina.
“What could make more sense than making Election Day the voting deadline?” asked Sen. Warren Daniel, a Republican from Morganton who sponsored the bill.
The push comes after Republican President Donald Trump said in 2020 that whoever is ahead on election night should be declared the winner, even if not all votes have been counted. Daniel said having a wait between election night and the results being announced causes distrust because some people think there’s a conspiracy going on.
“Distrust in an election process can be just as damaging” as fraud, he said, adding: “Everyone saw how long it took North Carolina to declare winners in the presidential election and U.S. Senate election.”
Trump questioned the election results in some states with extended deadlines where he lost, but not in North Carolina, where he won. On Wednesday night, during the debate on the bill, Democratic Sen. Toby Fitch of Wilson asked Daniel if he thought Trump really won the election and should have been sworn in in January.
Daniel refused to answer.
After that the debate broke down into squabbling between the two parties about whose leaders are more responsible for conspiracy theories about voting irregularities, before Senate leader Phil Berger stepped in to stop it, asking them to stay focused on the bill.
The bill, Daniel said, does not target any political party. It changes the deadline for voters of all parties. And that appears to be something Democrats and Republicans agree on, even if they come to different conclusions.
“This is a bill that is bad for voters of all political stripes,” Democratic Sen. Jay Chaudhuri of Raleigh said.
Voting rights activists have strongly opposed the proposal, saying it will result in thousands of legitimate ballots being thrown in the trash. Voting data shows that in 2020, around 14,000 voters in North Carolina had their ballots counted after they were mailed on time but not delivered by the U.S. Postal Service until after Election Day.
Republicans, however, say it’s an exaggeration to expect that so many ballots would be thrown away in the future if the new law passes, since voters could adjust their habits and mail their ballots earlier.
Who votes by mail in NC?
In 2020, Democrats used mail-in voting more than Republicans. That was largely because of the national politicization around who had coronavirus safety concerns. It also was a reversal of historical trends, which have typically seen Republicans use mail-in voting more than others in North Carolina.
In fact, Republican political strategist Paul Shumaker said that back in the early 2000s when Democrats controlled the legislature, he remembers them cracking down on absentee voting, something he says happened because Republicans had gotten so successful at using it to increase voter turnout for their supporters.
“Republicans in the past have used strategies to target and increase absentee voting,” he wrote in an email.
But the key question to this debate is not necessarily who votes by mail, but more specifically who votes by mail at the last minute. Those are the voters who would be most likely to run afoul of a potential new deadline and have their votes thrown out. Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer said that would be unaffiliated voters.
“Unaffiliated voters may be late deciders as opposed to the partisans who, nowadays, I think if you’re a registered partisan, you’re likely to be voting for that party,” Bitzer said.
That’s backed up by data: Even though Republicans in 2016 cast more total mail-in ballots than Democrats and unaffiliated voters, they had the lowest number of ballots that came in after Election Day. Unaffiliated voters, on the other hand, were tops in late-arriving ballots even though they cast the lowest total number.
By the numbers
In the 2016 general election 71,711 Republican voters here voted by mail, compared to 53,586 Democrats, 48,562 unaffiliated voters and 541 Libertarians.
In 2020 the numbers skyrocketed: 435,245 Democrats voted by mail as did 332,422 unaffiliated voters, 201,475 Republicans and a combined 5,154 members of the Constitution, Green and Libertarian parties.
Those numbers include only civilian absentee voters, and not the significantly smaller number of ballots cast by people in the military or living overseas. The bill would not apply to those voters if it does become law.
So the big question remains: In future elections will Democrats continue voting in larger numbers by mail? Or will it go back to being a voting method disproportionately used by Republicans?
Daniel said the political considerations shouldn’t matter. Most other states already have an early deadline, he said, and if it helps nip conspiracy theories in the bud, all the better.
According to polls cited by Berger’s office in defense of the bill, 60% of Republicans don’t believe the 2022 elections will be “free and fair” compared to 20% of Democrats.
But Bitzer said that, as someone who studies voters and politics, he’s not as confident changing a deadline will solve that.
“It could,” he said. “But we are in such a deeply polarized environment that there will always be causes and concerns — unless your candidate wins. And then it seems like those concerns go away.”
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