FILE - North Carolina state Sen. Ralph Hise
North Carolina state Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell

(The Center Square) – Senate Republicans in North Carolina are pushing back on an emergency order released Friday afternoon by the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

The order, issued by State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell, mandates a number of provisions ahead of the November general election.

Bell said the emergency order was meant to ensure voters who choose to vote in person can exercise their right to vote safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"If we do not take these measures, we risk much longer lines at voting sites and greater possibility of the spread of the coronavirus,” Bell said. “These are not acceptable risks in this important election year when we expect turnout to be high.”

Republicans took issue with the provision that says each county board must open at least one early voting site per 20,000 registered voters in the county. They said such a rule will open an inordinate amount of voting sites in areas dominated by Democrats while limiting the amount of sites in more rural parts of the state.

"It should raise red flags for everybody when the Board of Elections, which is controlled by one political party, issues an 'emergency' order late in the afternoon on a Friday. It's an open question as to whether this order is even legal," Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, who is co-chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, said in a statement. "And indeed, there is major cause for concern about this late-afternoon partisan rule. It appears that areas with high concentrations of Democrats will have dozens of early voting sites while more Republican areas may have just one.

"How is it fair or equitable for voters of one party to be able to walk down the street to vote early, while voters of another party will need to drive for miles and miles to vote early?

"The State Board of Elections must clarify this situation immediately, and also explain how they expect counties to pay for this out-of-left-field change."

Other mandates in the order include:

• Every early voting site must be open for at least 10 hours on the weekends of Oct. 17-18 and Oct. 24-25;

• Any county board with only one early voting site must arrange for a backup site and backup staff;

• County boards can open early voting sites before 8 a.m. and remain open later than 7:30 p.m., provided the sites are all open at the same time;

• All county boards must take significant precautions to protect voters and poll workers from the spread of disease. Safeguards include: providing for social distancing at voting sites, frequently sanitizing common surfaces, providing single-use pens to mark paper ballots or cotton swabs for ballot-marking devices, requiring elections officials to wear face coverings and making masks available to voters who do not bring their own.

Voters are not required to wear masks while voting.

The Board of Elections said state law and administrative rules authorize the executive director to exercise emergency powers to conduct an election where the normal schedule is disrupted by a catastrophe arising from natural causes.

Bell determined the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the election and necessitated she exercise the emergency powers after consultation with board members.

Regional Editor

Jason Schaumburg is an award-winning, veteran editor who has been a journalist for more than 20 years. He spent a decade as the top editor in three northern Illinois newsrooms for Shaw Media and Pioneer Press.