Did the GOP operative in North Carolina help election security?

When the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics voted against certifying 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 as the winner over Democrat Dan McCready in the state's 9th Congressional District, it may have done the entire country a favor.

The reason for the Board’s decision was the discovery of election fraud. And while the story is pretty old school, it could have an interesting impact on the 2020 election.

What Happened

The situation in North Carolina is still being parsed by officials, but there’s plenty we now know. Some form of election fraud occurred. It involved absentee ballots. North Carolina law only allows the voter to return his or her absentee ballot — if he or she can’t do it for some reason, the state permits a legal guardian or close-relative to do it. 

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At issue was a practice, illegal in North Carolina, called “ballot harvesting.” Ballot harvesting is legal in some states — for instance California — but the term is pejorative, one used mainly by Republicans who see the practice of collecting absentee ballots as a way to artificially increase voter turnout. Other critics point out that it can lead to voter suppression or fraud. Worth noting here because it has caused some confusion, harvesting is not considered a form of voter suppression—in fact, it’s the other way around; a ban on harvesting is usually followed by Democrat accusations of voter suppression.

Ballot harvesting and plain old absentee ballot return require a witness signature. Typically, if the same signature appears on several ballots, it is a good indication that a campaign worker has been actively reaping the vote. According to a CNN review of the irregularities in North Carolina, three witnesses signed more than 40 ballots each, another signed 30 and three others signed more than 10 apiece.

Enter the Republican Mark Harris campaign consultant named Leslie McCrae Dowless, a person of interest in the 9th District election fraud case. Dowless was most recently determined to be in possession of more than 800 absentee ballots before the North Carolina Republican primary. Reports claim Dowless hired people to collect ballots in the largely minority and Democratic-leaning 9th District and as per his instructions, instead of delivering them to election officials, they delivered the ballots to him.

There is more to the story, but the details only matter in so far as they relate to a larger topic of concern: Election security, or better yet, the integrity of our nation’s elections — from state to county to municipality to village to the National Mall.

A teachable moment

While election security may not seem like a partisan issue (and it shouldn’t be), it all too often breaks along party lines. In fact, the partisan divide on election security tends to mirror the sort of contrary positions we see on a wide array of issues from education and public funding for the arts to abortion and universal healthcare. The traditional fault line: Republicans focus on voter fraud while Democrats worry more about voter suppression.

Then there are election security experts. While we tend to focus on hacking, socially engineered foreign disinformation campaigns and a host of other cyber issues, we are deeply concerned about voter suppression and voter fraud. But at the end of the day, it is all about the overall integrity of the election process.

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When news broke of ballot irregularities in North Carolina’s 9th district, something strange (and welcome) may have happened in the realm of election security. Republicans started saying “We told you so.” However, that seemed a bit disingenuous since the particulars of the irregularities had to do with a Republican operative hired by the Republican candidate doing something with absentee ballots that radically changed the election results in that district. The situation was held up by Republicans as a prime example of the perils of ballot harvesting.

It made no sense at first. Why would Republicans be calling out a Republican?

The answer is that election security has perhaps finally become a bipartisan issue. 

The announcement of the RNC hack and the situation in North Carolina underscored the real problem we face as a nation: Our election systems currently comprise a weird ecosystem of mismanagement small and large, foreign interference and still-unchecked cyberthreats. 

We can no longer allow election security to be a zero-sum game. Everything matters. A coast-to-coast election security audit and overhaul would look like a public debate that leads to action not deadlock — an approach that is not based on campaign strategy but on insuring everyone’s vote is counted. That means auditing state, county and local election systems, aggressively performing penetration tests to ensure the storage and transit of the voter rolls is secure, determining the best way to create a ballot and processes for casting votes that assures the vote happens in a lawful and open way with access for all eligible voters, and above all else security from attacks on our democratic system.

The first step here is to admit we have a problem, and with the latest news in North Carolina, we can only hope our nation is ready to take the steps necessary to restore integrity to and faith in our electoral process.

Adam K. Levin is chairman and founder of CyberScout (formerly IDT911) and co-founder of Credit.com. He is a former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs and is the author of Swiped: How to Protect Yourself In a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves, which debuted at #1 on the Amazon Hot New Releases List.