Here's how North Carolina can prevent election fraud from happening again

Here's how North Carolina can prevent election fraud from happening again
© Greg Nash

The absentee ballot election fraud that occurred in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District was inexcusable, and likely criminal. The state Election Board acted correctly in unanimously ordering a new election. But, lest we learn the wrong lessons from the episode, it’s important to recognize the real culprit. It wasn’t mailed-out ballots themselves — 32 million were cast in the midterms without a hint of real scandal in other states. Rather, the situation in North Carolina presents the perfect example of what not to do in election administration. It showcases a poorly designed election process and ineffective, outdated laws.  

As an election official who had oversight of millions of mailed-out ballots in Denver, Colo., for more than a decade, I can speak to what works and what doesn’t. My advice to North Carolina is simple: Look West. In the 2018 midterms, according to Pew Research, 69 percent of votes cast in the West emanated from mailed-out ballots. As the popular TV ad says, “We know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two.”

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Election administration — from laws to conduct — must focus relentlessly on the protection of the right to vote, not merely on who wins the election.

North Carolina has five significant flaws in its election process that created the conditions for this situation to arise:

Burdensome witness requirements: In virtually every other state, a voter need only sign his or her ballot return envelope. Election officials compare that signature with the official signature on file before validating the ballot. In the West, we use 100 percent signature verification at the elections office, with bipartisan judges and immediate notification with a reasonable timeline to “fix” any questionable signatures.

But in North Carolina, the voter must get the ballot witnessed by two persons, 18 years or older, or by a public notary (NC Gen Stat § 163-231). This undue burden can confuse voters and leave them reliant upon someone else to help. This was the opening exploited by political operatives last fall.

Insufficient drop-off options for voters: If a North Carolina voter has not mailed the absentee ballot back soon enough, state law requires hand delivery to a county election office, which may be many miles away (NC Gen Stat §163-231). And by law, that person must be a close relative.  But for those who have trouble meeting the delivery requirements, or don’t know the rules, it opens a door that others can walk through.

In contrast, in Colorado we supplement returning ballots via the U.S. mail with ample secure drop boxes, available, 24/7 until the official close of voting. In addition, we operate staffed “vote centers” where voters can receive assistance or replace lost ballots. That makes voting by mail convenient throughout the cycle, and keeps the door closed to those who would take advantage of a North Carolina-like model.

Lack of a ballot tracking system: In Western states, voting by mail has been widely used over time and systems are advanced. There are proven tools that provide voters with superb customer service, the ability to track their ballot (as you would a package), and to confirm that it was properly received (examples: Ballot TRACE or Ballot Scout).

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Many states and local jurisdictions now utilize ballot tracking that notifies voters by text or email about the status of their ballot, from the time it is mailed to when it has been received by the election official, verified and sent to the counting room. This provides voters and election officials complete visibility of the mail ballot envelope at each step in the process, which is key to deterring and detecting interference.   

Lack of communication to voters with instructions: Communication, clear design, and voter education are key across all methods of voting. Examples: “Seal your ballot once it is voted” and “Do not provide it to someone you do not trust.” Ballot instructions, envelope design and marketing campaigns and messaging can ensure that voters have a positive voting experience, with clear, concise instructions.  

Lack of protections for voters in election laws: Various states have enhanced their laws to protect voters with serious penalties that discourage illegal behavior. This is key to ensuring that all voters have access to a fair process and are protected from undue influence, interference or intimidation. For example, in Oregon, tampering with a mailed ballot is a felony; for each ballot affected, that felony is punishable by up to five years in prison and up to a $125,000 fine. So, with a few ballots intentionally misdirected, a perpetrator could face decades in prison.

Even inadvertent mishandling comes with painful penalties. Recently, a civic-minded group in Oregon collected 97 ballots to drop off but misplaced them temporarily and then did not get them to the elections office until the day after the election. The court found it was indeed an honest mistake, but the fine was $1,000 per ballot, or $95,000. In Colorado, when a bad actor was caught voting his wife’s ballot, he was held accountable.

What happened in North Carolina was unfortunate. But the most important takeaway is that it was eminently preventable. By addressing the issues outlined above, North Carolina — and every state — can put in place a process that protects people’s sacred right to vote.

Amber McReynolds is executive director of the National Vote at Home Institute. She is the former election director for Denver, Colo., and was recognized as a “Top Public Official of the Year” by Governing Magazine for her work to reform and improve the voting process. Follow her on Twitter @AmberMcReynolds.