COVID-19


On Tuesday the NC Department of Health and Human Services announced the launch of a new free and voluntary COVID-19 contact tracing app, called SlowCOVIDNC. The app will use Bluetooth, rather than GPS or location-tracking services, to alert users when they have come into close contact with another user who has reported themselves as COVID-positive using a unique PIN obtained during testing. On the same day, Governor Cooper announced an additional $40 million in relief funding for small businesses, to be administered by the state Department of Commerce, and he said to expect an announcement next week about whether large outdoor venues will be able to open at 7% capacity beginning October 2.


Voting Rights


The NC State Board of Elections announced a lawsuit settlement on Tuesday that makes it easier to fix errors on mail-in ballots. New rules, once approved by a judge, would allow voters to “cure” ballots lacking the required witness information or signature by submitting a signed affidavit. Because of concerns about possible mail delays, the new rules would also extend the deadline for receipt of mail-in ballots from November 6 to November 12. (They still must be postmarked by November 3.) The 5-member Board agreed to the settlement unanimously, with both Republican members in favor.


  • The day after the NC State Board of Elections’ unanimous vote on the mail-in voting lawsuit settlement, both Republican members resigned in apparent protest, leaving the State Board with only three members (all Democrats) heading into the November election. Governor Cooper must approve two Republicans to fill the vacancies, but timing is unclear. High-profile North Carolina Republicans, including Dan Forest and Thom Tillis, seized on the issue to express outrage and concern about the settlement and to call into question the safety of mail-in voting in North Carolina.


  • On Friday, it emerged that both Republican Board members resigned under retaliatory pressure from the top lawyer for the NC GOP during an angry phone call. Additionally, Democratic members of the Board released documents showing the former members’ stated justifications for their resignations were untrue.


  • On Saturday North Carolina GOP leaders, the Republican National Committee, and President Trump’s campaign committee filed lawsuits attempting to block the changes agreed upon in the mail-in voting lawsuit settlement. The plaintiffs claim that the changes, which would likely increase the number of ballots counted in North Carolina, would lead to an increase in “fraud” and would “undermine protections” to keep the election safe.


More mail-in ballots have already been cast in North Carolina than in 2016. Mail-in ballot requests are over 11 times greater than at the same time in 2016. So far there have not been any major issues reported in US Postal Service delivery times. But the massive increase in requests has caused a backlog at some county boards of elections. As a result, some voters who have submitted absentee ballot requests are seeing what look like error messages on the state’s new ballot tracking website, BallotTrax, because the site can’t track ballots until requests are processed and in the system.


On Thursday U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle ruled in favor of blind voters in North Carolina, issuing a preliminary injunction requiring the State Board of Elections to provide blind and low-vision voters access to an online voting portal. The portal, called Democracy Live, is already used by deployed military members and NC citizens living abroad; it would provide a way for blind voters concerned about the health risks of voting in person during the pandemic to vote absentee without assistance from a sighted person. Some advocacy groups that brought the suit are now working with the Board of Elections to implement the order.


Economic and Housing Policy


The state Division of Employment Security released an update announcing that federally funded employment benefits provided under the Extended Benefits program will be available for a maximum of 6 weeks, rather than the current 9.6 weeks, beginning October 10. The update explains that this decrease comes because North Carolina’s unemployment rate has decreased from 8.5% in July to 6.5% in August.


Environmental Policy


On Friday the NC Department of Environmental Quality issued a citation to Colonial Pipeline for the release of the cancer-causing chemical benzene into groundwater from an August 14 gasoline spill in Huntersville. While the DEQ has not yet issued any fines, the citation requires Colonial to take several actions, including testing its onsite monitoring wells for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), restoring groundwater quality to acceptable standards, and submitting detailed monthly reports of its monitoring and mitigation activities.


COVID-19

  • Governor Cooper announced that starting on October 5, school districts will have discretion to reopen elementary schools for in-person instruction. With this option, referred to as Plan A, classrooms will be able to operate at full capacity while still requiring students and staff to wear masks, practice social distancing, and get daily symptom screening. The governor indicated the decision was based on research that suggests younger children are less likely than others to be affected by and also less likely to transmit COVID-19. Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of DHHS, also noted improved COVID-19 metrics across the state. Leaders for the NC Association of Educators are asking teachers to lobby school districts not to reopen elementary schools, saying it endangers students and school employees. Republican legislators want the governor to allow in-class instruction for students of all ages.

  • After Gov. Cooper declined to issue an executive order compelling employers to provide COVID-19 protection to farm and meat packing workers, the Farmworker Advocacy Network has demanded that Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry issue an Emergency Infectious Disease Standard. This is a set of mandatory infection control requirements that employers must implement for workers deemed essential by the state. Although worker safety guidance was issued by the state Department of Health and Human Services, no mandatory safety requirements across essential workplaces like meatpacking plants and produce fields were issued. Workers in these industries are often forced to work under crowded, poorly ventilated conditions without adequate personal protective equipment. Commissioner Berry had argued against the executive order, asserting that it “appears to overreach the Governor’s power by creating new legal requirements and implying that the NCDOL will enforce standards that exceed existing authority.”


Voting Rights

  • As voters have started mailing in absentee ballots, the state reports that about 3% of ballots have identifiable problems, with the most common being a failure to fully complete the witness section on the outside of the envelope. Additionally, ballots turned in by Black voters have been found to have issues at a rate of 7.6%, compared to 3.4% for Hispanic voters and 2.2% for white voters. Voting rights advocates are monitoring the situation closely. Election officials are required to reach out to you if they find a problem with your ballot and give you a chance to correct it before it is rejected. You can track the status of your ballot with the State Board of Elections here.



Education Policy


  • On Thursday, the UNC Board of Governors approved a controversial change to the chancellor search process used by each UNC system campus. In the traditional process, the Board of Trustees for a campus would submit at least two candidates to the UNC System President, who would then choose the final candidate for approval by the UNC Board of Governors. The new process will allow the UNC System President to unilaterally recommend two candidates to the search committee and mandate that at least one of these will become an automatic finalist, effectively giving the System President the power to both appoint finalists and choose the final candidate.


COVID-19

  • HB 1105, the coronavirus relief bill that passed on September 3rd, contains a provision loosening licensing requirements for child care facilities during the pandemic or any other state of emergencyThe provision will allow YMCAs, YWCAs, Boys and Girls clubs, and other “community-based organizations” to provide child care without being licensed as child care facilities, and it will waive employee background check and CPR and first aid certification requirements. Though Sen. Terry VanDuyn, a Democrat from Asheville, introduced an amendment to add back some basic requirements, including mandatory notification of COVID-19 cases among children or staff, all Republicans voted against bringing the amendment up for debate, and the bill passed with the original provision in place.


Voting Rights

  • On Tuesday state and national Democrats filed suit in Wake County Superior Court to challenge North Carolina’s existing ballot-curing procedures -- rules for voters to fix mail-in ballots with errors. These rules, which the plaintiffs are asking be declared unconstitutional, were most recently adjusted in a memo from the State Board of Elections released on August 21. If the courts rule in their favor, election officials would have to make it easier for voters to “cure” an absentee ballot that is missing a witness signature.

  • On Wednesday Common Cause filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections asking for a criminal investigation into the alleged violation of state campaign finance laws by U.S. Postmaster Louis DeJoy. The complaint, along with a letter the group sent to N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, draws on Washington Post reporting from the previous weekend that DeJoy had pressured employees to donate to Republican campaigns and subsequently reimbursed them through bonuses.


Education Policy

  • On Wednesday Governor Cooper announced $40 million in funding for NC Student Connect, a new partnership across multiple state government bodies and organizations designed to address barriers to remote learning. $30 million of the funding will go toward distributing wireless hotspots across the state to allow students to reach virtual classrooms; the remaining funding will be used for establishing sites for the hotspots and programming for educators, parents, and students to help them adjust to virtual teaching and learning.


Economic and Housing Policy

  • North Carolina is applying for an additional two weeks of weekly $300 FEMA supplements to unemployment checks for residents of the state, after receiving an initial allocation that covered three weeks and a subsequent approval for a fourth week. FEMA announced the availability of additional funding on Friday, and a spokesperson has said that all states that apply for the additional weeks will receive the funding. Legislation providing an additional $50/week of state-funded supplements to unemployment was signed by Governor Cooper on September 4, but there is no date set yet for when these supplements will begin appearing in unemployment checks due to complexities in implementing the change.