Disputed North Carolina race exposes mail ballot flaws

An investigation into suspected fraud in a closely contested House race in North Carolina has shined a spotlight on an increasingly powerful tool in U.S. elections: mail-in ballots.

The case in North Carolina’s 9th District, which centers on claims of an aggressive — and illegal — absentee ballot drive by a Republican operative, has resurfaced concerns about the security of mail-in ballots and the potential for fraud.

It also raises questions about how vote-by-mail programs should be executed, especially with a growing number of Americans casting their ballots by mail.

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Between 2008 and 2016, the number of voters who cast mail-in ballots more than tripled, from 2.4 million to 8.2 million, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

But some experts say that mail-in absentee voting also raises the likelihood of ballot tampering, because there are fewer checks in place to ensure that completed ballots reach local election officials without interference from third parties.

“I think that it’s fair-minded to say that the fraud that we do see is associated with absentee ballots, because there are these points where an actor with ill intent can try to manipulate things,” said Paul Gronke, the director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

To be sure, fraud, either in mail-in or in-person voting, is rare. But Gronke expressed concern that the current allegations in North Carolina’s 9th District might prompt an overly aggressive response from lawmakers seeking to shore up the state’s voting procedures.

“I’m concerned that, with all the attention this has gotten, there could be a lot of overreaction,” Gronke said.

State investigators in North Carolina are looking into an alleged scheme run by Republican operative Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. who reportedly paid people to illegally collect voters’ absentee ballots in rural Bladen County and neighboring Robeson County.

The investigation has cast a shadow over the race to represent North Carolina’s 9th District between Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Mark HarrisMark HarrisElection scandal looms over House race in NC North Carolina House race redo draws nearly a dozen GOP candidates House clerk to take over constituent services for contested North Carolina district MORE, whose campaign hired Dowless through a contractor.

Harris currently leads McCready by 905 votes. But the suspected fraud — and what Harris may have known about the alleged scheme — has raised the prospect of a new election in the district. Harris has said he was unaware of any wrongdoing.

The kind of ballot-harvesting operation that allegedly took place in North Carolina’s 9th District is banned under state law, which allows someone other than the voter to return absentee ballots to elections offices in only limited circumstances.

But former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, said that such a prohibition hasn’t stopped the practice of collecting ballots entirely.

“There are activists being paid a lot of money to get out the vote,” McCrory said in an interview. “Just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean they’re not doing it.”

McCrory himself alleged during a monthlong election battle in 2016 that hundreds of absentee ballots had been fraudulently cast and said that the latest controversy in the state’s 9th District is proof of ongoing issues with mail-in voting.

He added that lawmakers should do away with mail-in voting, except for members of the military, Americans living overseas and people with certain medical conditions, arguing that the expansion of in-person early voting in the state has given people ample opportunity to cast their ballots.

“If you got this much money on the ground, there’s always going to be some characters that abuse the system — a system that’s based on trust,” McCrory said in an interview. He said that current absentee voting laws should be tightened.

“There are little gaps in the system where you might have to firm up rules and regulations,” he said. “It’s a fine line between making it easier and making it safer.”

Advocates for vote-by-mail and other convenience voting programs argue that it boosts turnout, especially among voters who may have trouble getting to their precinct on or before Election Day.

Three states — Washington, Colorado and Oregon — automatically mail ballots to registered voters. Those states had some of the highest voter turnout rates in the 2018 midterm elections, according to data compiled by the United States Elections Project.

Chris Hughes, a staff attorney for the electoral reform group FairVote, noted that fraud, both in mail-in and in-person voting, is “vanishingly rare.”

He acknowledged that it is harder to detect fraud when people vote by mail, but said the process ultimately moves states toward a greater goal of expanding access to the ballot.

“Maybe marginally you’re making your elections less secure,” Hughes said. “But the more valuable thing is not harming your democracy by putting up barriers to participation.”

Mail-in ballots also emerged at the center of at least two lawsuits filed in federal court last month amid recounts in three elections in Florida.

Those lawsuits, filed by Democrats and outside groups, challenged the state’s process for evaluating and verifying voter signatures on mail-in ballots, as well as the state deadline for when county election offices must receive mail-in ballots.

The challenges saw only minor success in court. A federal judge ordered election officials to extend the deadline for some voters to correct signature errors on mail-in ballots, but declined in both cases to block the state rules altogether.

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A report published earlier this year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida found that people who cast their votes by mail in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections were 10 times more likely to have their ballots rejected than those who voted in person.

Likewise, thousands of absentee ballots were tossed out in Georgia this year because of mismatched voter signatures and other technical errors like missing birth dates, giving rise to lawsuits challenging the criteria under which the ballots were rejected.

But unlike the controversy in North Carolina, the cases in Florida and Georgia hinged on existing procedures that make it more difficult for people to have their mail-in ballots counted, Hughes said.

Many GOP-controlled legislatures across the country have pushed voter-identification laws that advocates say are necessary to prevent voter impersonation. But such fraud is exceedingly rare, and critics argue that those laws suppress minority voter turnout.

“It’s hard because vote-by-mail does have these certain risks attached to it,” he said. “In North Carolina, there was an abuse of the process. In Florida, it was the process that harmed voters.”

Gronke, the director of the Early Voting Information Center, said that reforms should focus on making it easier for absentee voters to submit mail-in ballots and increasing transparency for how those ballots are received and counted.

“Openness improves security. That’s the only lesson I would convey out there,” he said. “It’s not the way they’re casting the ballots. It’s the way you report the information.”