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Legislator, state NAACP propose voting changes post-Florence

October 1, 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A civil rights group and key legislator are concerned enough about how residents displaced by Hurricane Florence will be able to vote that they’re seeking action on ballot and registration access.

On the eve of special session addressing Florence relief, the state NAACP held a news conference Monday asking the state elections board to extend the traditional voter registration deadline from Oct. 12 to Oct. 17 in close to 30 eastern counties.

But Republican Rep. David Lewis, a House Elections Committee chairman, said he’s put together legislation for Tuesday’s special session for Florence relief that would extend traditional registration until Oct. 15 in 28 counties currently declared federal disaster areas.

The legislation also would direct election officials to educate the public in areas harmed by the hurricane about their voting and registration options and give election boards flexibility to replace damaged voting sites, according to a release from the General Assembly’s top GOP leaders. The state board is still assessing site damages, Strach wrote last week.

The Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, the state NAACP president, wanted to go further by easing absentee ballot deadlines. That includes letting people who moved temporarily to another county because of the storm cast absentee ballots on Election Day in person at a polling place in that county, according to a letter Spearman wrote to elected officials and the state board. Currently, those ballots don’t count, even for statewide races.

There also needs to be options for more in-person early voting and Election Day polling sites in affected areas and voter education efforts, Spearman’s letter says.

“Disenfranchisement should not be among the many hardships that our brothers and sisters in eastern North Carolina wake up today worried about,” said Caitlin Swain with Forward Justice, a law and policy center focused on social justice issues working with the NAACP. “Let’s take voting access off the worry list.”

State law gives board Executive Director Kim Strach power to act unilaterally on these topics in some emergency situations, although the fact that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has called the legislature back now would appear to keep the decision-making in the hands of lawmakers.

The board staff has already mailed thousands of absentee ballot requests and voter registration forms to shelters where storm victims have been staying, Strach wrote Cooper and legislative leaders.

People who don’t register before the ultimate registration deadline would still be able to participate in early-voting in their home counties from Oct. 17 through Nov. 3. Election Day is Nov. 6.

In October 2016 just after Hurricane Matthew, a judge ordered traditional registration be extended three business days in 36 eastern counties.

In addition to the voting concerns, lawmakers are expected to return Tuesday for one day to consider several provisions designed to aid the recovery, including waiving makeup requirements for lost public school days and ensuring teachers and staff are getting paid even when classes were cancelled. Some districts still haven’t re-opened.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger also announced late Monday they want to set aside state funds to match initial federal recovery dollars, as well as waive other Division of Motor Vehicles fees for replacement documents and address mosquito control.

The General Assembly then is expected back in Raleigh next week to consider spending requests of Cooper’s state agencies responding to Florence.

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