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.
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.
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.