Graphic via COURIER
Graphic via COURIER

Voting is about to get easier for North Carolinians.

In recent years, figuring out when you can vote before Election Day in North Carolina has been, to put it mildly, confusing. But last week, state lawmakers passed a bill that puts the last Saturday before the general election back on the voting calendar. 

The change falls under Senate Bill 683, which aims to tackle absentee voter fraud (in light of an election fraud scandal that engulfed the state last year). Among its provisions is the requirement that mail-in absentee ballots be completed and filed only by the voter or a close relative, with increased penalties for people who attempt to sell or destroy others’ completed absentee ballots. The measure also requires early voting sites to be open throughout the state on weekdays 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (instead of the previous 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) and on the last Saturday before the election from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

On Oct. 29, the bill passed unanimously in the Senate (49-0) and only one lawmaker in the House (Rep. Darren Jackson, a Democrat representing District 39) voted against the measure in the House, putting the count at 111-1. 

SB 683 now heads to Gov. Roy Cooper, who is expected to sign the bill.

“The permanent restoration of the popular last Saturday of Early Voting is a huge victory for voters ahead of a high turnout presidential election,” Democracy North Carolina spokesperson Jen Jones said in a statement. “As we’ve reported, in prior elections the mandatory final Saturday was the only weekend option for working voters in many North Carolina counties.”

“The permanent restoration of the popular last Saturday of Early Voting is a huge victory for voters ahead of a high turnout presidential election,”

According to research released earlier this year, the final Saturday before Election Day was the only weekend option in more than half of North Carolina’s 100 counties in 2018. Eliminating that option, the authors of the Democracy N.C. report point out, disproportionately limited voting access to North Carolinians who are 25 and under, Black, Latinx and live in certain rural counties. 

Prior to 2018, North Carolinians could cast their ballots during limited hours on the Saturday before Election Day. But last year, the GOP-led legislature passed legislation that required all early voting locations to have consistent hours during the week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and eliminated the option to open on the last Saturday of the early voting period.

“What we set out with the intention to do is to be able to make it more reliable and dependable that the voters would know that the early voting site or sites in their county was open from a set time in the morning to a set time in the evening,” Republican state Rep. David Lewis of District 53 told NPR’s Morning Edition in June 2018. 

What ensued, however, was frustration and criticism. Shortly thereafter, Republicans agreed to restore the final Saturday for early voting—though only for the 2018 general election. 

On Oct. 28, Democrats filed a lawsuit over the June 2018 law, alleging that Republicans in the state legislature have “repeatedly set their sights on reducing and restricting early voting opportunities for North Carolinians, targeting voters whom they perceive to hold unfavorable political views.”

And while SB 683 restores Saturday early voting for the 2020 general election, Democracy N.C. makes it clear that it’s not “a perfect bill.” 

“While we remain concerned,” Jones said, “that Senate Bill 683’s absentee voting restrictions will have the impact of limiting voting access for many of the state’s most vulnerable voters — including elderly and younger voters — the passage of Senate Bill 684 remains a step in the right direction for all who rely on Early Voting access.”