Ease NC’s absentee voting rules for people displaced by Hurricane Florence, NAACP asks

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The voter registration deadline should be extended and absentee ballot requirements loosened for people from counties hit hardest by Hurricane Florence, the state NAACP said Monday.

The legislature returns to Raleigh on Tuesday and is set to consider voting changes in counties hurt by the hurricane, but the changes an influential House member has outlined don’t go as far as the NAACP wants.

“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.

The NAACP wants the state to extend the voter registration deadline in 29 counties by at least five days to allow local boards to accept registration forms postmarked by Wednesday, Oct. 17. The current deadline is Friday, Oct. 12.

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 legislature will likely consider a bill that would move the registration deadline back to Oct. 15 in counties under major disaster declarations. House Rules Chairman David Lewis is working on the bill.

Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, also wants the state elections board and local boards to be able to educate voters on their options, and for replacement polling places and early voting sites to be approved by unanimous votes of local boards. House members received an email from his office last week outlining the proposals.

The email from Lewis’ office does not address the changes to absentee voting the NAACP wants.

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