North Carolina NOW Legislative Update—1 June 2020
There have been shocking developments concerning alleged sexual harassment and verbal assault in the General Assembly. Senator Erica Smith has accused Senate colleagues of harassment, assault, and bullying in incidents dating back to 2015. Complaints against legislators are handled internally and secretly by the Legislative Ethics Committee consisting of legislators who are historically reluctant to condemn any of their colleagues.
These issues came to a head on September 11, 2019, when reporters witnessed Sen. Paul Lowe (D-Forsyth) being escorted out of a committee room by Senators Floyd McKissick, Jr. and Jay Chaudhuri.
Reporters had heard yelling behind the closed door, but did not know what had transpired inside the room. This week the media obtained documents pertaining to the incident inside the room, including written statements by witnesses and the report of the capital police, who were called. Even though the police concluded that a verbal assault had occurred, Senator Smith did not file criminal charges. She did file a complaint with the Legislative Ethics Committee.
According to eyewitnesses, a verbal altercation broke out between Sen. Smith and Sen. Lowe that became so heated that other senators intervened because they feared it would escalate into violence.
This incident prompted the introduction of a bill that would have required mandatory ethics training for legislators and created a process for filing complaint. Some legislators interviewed believe sexual harassment and discrimination complaints should be investigated by an outside agency, not by legislators. The bill did not make it out of committee.
This week the Ethics Committee dismissed Senator Smith’s charges against Senator Lowe and other senators, and she decided to make the situation public. For a full account see: https://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/article242670451.html
The biggest legislative news this week is that the bipartisan bill (HB1169) to make it easier to vote by mail has passed the House and is expected to pass the Senate quickly. Under current law, people who cast a ballot by mail are required to have the signatures of two witnesses (or one notary); this requirement would be reduced to one witness. The bill would also allow voters to request absentee ballots through email or fax, which is not currently allowed and would also create a new tracking system to allow voters to make sure their ballot makes it to the board of elections. In addition, there is a new requirement for voters to be notified if something is wrong with their ballot and to give them the opportunity to fix it. For more information, see: https://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2020/05/28/covid-19-bipartisan-elections-bill-now-moving-to-senate-for-approval/
See summary and list of bills NC NOW is tracking at NC NOW Legislative Update.01 Jun 20