The NC State Board of Elections had received more than 25,000 public comments by the end of the day on Monday in response to a temporary emergency rule that allows the board’s executive director to exercise emergency powers in the event of an epidemic.

On Monday, during the online public-comments hearing, several individuals — many of whom were aligned with the conservative Reopen NC initiative — spoke out against the rule, claiming the director’s new authority would do away with in-person voting and would lead to voter fraud.

“There is significant misinformation about this rule and about the state board of election’s proposals for voting in November,” said Patrick Gannon, the board’s public information officer, who was reached by phone on Tuesday.

In reality, the rule already went into effect on March 20, primarily to give the executive director the ability to move the date of the second primary election in the 11th Congressional District. Because a temporary rulemaking requires a public comment period, community members were invited to voice their input starting on March 19, despite the fact that the rule went into action the next day. Gannon could not say when the temporary rule would expire.

“The move had bipartisan backing by all parties,” Gannon said about enacting the new temporary rule. “We needed to do something quickly about the second primary and had numerous discussions with Republicans and it was approved as an emergency rule.”

The second primary between two Republicans was initially scheduled for May 12, but because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the executive director adopted an amendment which gives her emergency powers during national disasters. The rule was amended on March 20 to include “a disease epidemic or other public health incident that makes it impossible or extremely hazardous for election officials or voters to reach or otherwise access the voting place…” as a form of national disaster.

The new date for the second primary is now June 23.

“The health and safety of North Carolina voters, election staff and poll workers is our top priority during this time,” said Karen Brinson-Bell, the state elections director in a press release. “State and county election officials are working hard on plans to ensure voters can cast ballots safely in all future elections, even if the threat of COVID-19 persists.”

Griffith Fire Station, a Democratic-leaning precinct on the Davidson county line with a large pool of unaffiliated voters, tilted towards Clinton in 2016. (photo by Jordan Green)

Many individuals who spoke out during the hearing on Monday seemed to be confused about the nature of the new rule. Several spoke out against moving to an all-mail-in ballot system come November and threw around the phrases “voter fraud” and “ballot harvesting.”

Gannon said that moving to an all-mail-in system for the November general election has never been recommended by the executive director, and never will.

“This amendment in no way authorizes the executive director to call a vote-by-mail election,” he said. A switch to all-mail voting in North Carolina would take years to implement and numerous law changes by the General Assembly. There are a few states out West that do all-mail voting, but when this pandemic took place and people started having concerns, directors in those states gave a laundry list of reasons why it would be extremely difficult to move to that system.”

Gannon also reiterated the fact that the mail-in option through absentee voting has always existed in the state of North Carolina.

“There is nothing new about vote-by-mail in North Carolina,” he said. “No special circumstance is needed to vote absentee ballot by mail.”

Right now, Gannon said that the board is making recommendations to the General Assembly to consider helping people who aren’t used to voting by mail who may exercise the option in November if the pandemic persists.

“We know that there will be an influx of people who want to vote by mail,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious under the circumstances that more people will want to vote by mail.”

Gannon said the goal is to have all three voting options — in-person early-voting, absentee and in-person day of — available come November.

At least seven coronavirus cases were linked to an in-person primary election held on April 7 in Wisconsin, including six voters and one poll worker, according to recent news reports.

The election came after Republicans won an appeal in the state’s conservative-controlled Supreme Court to hold the election as scheduled on April 7, despite Democrats’ efforts to postpone the election until June.

March 3, 2020 primary voting (photo by Carolyn DeBerry)

The state Board of Elections in North Carolina has set up a task force made up of about 10 county election directors to come up with ways to help counties prepare for an increase in the number of absentee ballots. Tools such as high-speed scanners may be purchased to help count ballots quickly. Special letter-openers are also being considered as well as an increase in funding to help pay for more staff to process absentee ballots.

The board has also put together a list of recommendations for the General Assembly to consider including establishing an online portal for voters to request absentee ballots and opening a fund to help pay for postage for returned ballots. Another recommendation is to make Election Day a state holiday to allow students, teachers and younger individuals to volunteer as pollworkers. All recommendations would require statutory changes by the General Assembly.

Gannon also clarified that the board’s new temporary rule does not allow the executive director to change the date of the general election. That is set by federal law, he said.

It also doesn’t give the governor more authority over elections, as suggested by some who spoke out during the public-comments period, said Gannon.

Gannon said the emergency rule has been exercised in the past, such as when hurricanes have impeded voters from getting to polls.

“We extended early voting in places in eastern North Carolina where early voting had been washed out of a couple of days,” he said. “It’s various things like that. Much smaller things than what people are assuming might happen.”

While the rule is already in effect, Gannon said in an email on Wednesday that the state elections staff will “make any changes based on the public comments received” to the text, which will then be approved by the executive director and sent to the rules review commission, for any final changes. The rules review commission meets on May 21.

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