Early voting Saturday before elections to be restored if Cooper signs it into law

A day of early voting will be restored and hours extended if the governor signs a bill passed Tuesday by the General Assembly.

The Senate voted unanimously, 49-0, on Tuesday for the latest version of Senate Bill 683, and the House voted 114-1 as well.

Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican, and Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat, co-sponsored the bill. McKissick said they came up with a process and procedure that’s fair.

The bill restores early voting on the final Saturday before an election and extends the hours, which will be from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Previously, last-Saturday voting had ended at 1 p.m. or at 5 p.m. if extended locally. Now it will end at 3 p.m. for all early voting sites in North Carolina.

While Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper hasn’t said if he will sign the bill, Democrats demanded that day’s voting be restored — and even sued over the issue.

The bill also adds some safeguards to prevent the absentee ballot fraud in 2018’s 9th Congressional District race, which resulted in a special election this year.

What the law, assuming Cooper signs it, will do:

Require strict record keeping of all absentee ballot requests and returned ballots, with identification and confirmed voter registration of voters.

Make absentee ballot fraud a criminal offense. False statements and candidates witnessing absentee ballots of non-relatives would both be Class 1 misdemeanors. Selling or attempting to sell a completed ballot — and accepting payment for them — would be felonies. Destroying absentee ballots with the intent of obstructing a vote would also be a felony.

Restore early voting on the last Saturday before an election, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Make early voting hours on weekdays 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., instead of the previous 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Hise, who is co-chair of the Senate Committee on Redistricting and Elections, issued a statement after the vote, saying lawmakers kept their promise to “craft consensus legislation addressing the absentee ballot fraud that took place during the Ninth Congressional District election.”

Hise said that the new policies are intended to ensure that last year’s fraud can never happen again.

While there was last-Saturday early voting in the 2018 election, a law passed that session over Cooper’s veto would have eliminated it for 2020.

On Monday, the North Carolina Democratic Party, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed a lawsuit over that law, both the last Saturday early voting along with early voting locations, The News & Observer previously reported.

Hise’s statement include a response to the lawsuit.

“I think it’s telling that the Democratic Party, apparently without speaking to its own elected officials, filed a lawsuit asking judges to create policy that we’ve already spent months to achieve in a bipartisan fashion,” Hise said.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.