After 9th District fraud, NC elections officials want tighter rules for absentee ballots
Posted March 13, 2019 3:50 p.m. EDT
Updated March 13, 2019 7:13 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — In the wake of fraud that has forced a new election in the 9th Congressional District, North Carolina elections officials called Wednesday for tighter rules on how mail-in absentee ballots are requested and submitted.
The State Board of Elections ordered a new 9th District election last month after a four-day hearing turned up evidence that someone hired by Republican Mark Harris' campaign was illegally collecting absentee ballots from Bladen County voters and, in some instances, even completing ballots where votes weren't cast in some races.
- 9th District election fraud now part of federal criminal probe
- Unsealed warrants show FBI probed 9th District issues before '18 election
Kim Strach, state elections director, asked lawmakers for help to make such fraud more difficult and to punish offenders more severely.
"We think it's important that we send strong messages, and by making those penalties tougher, we hopefully will deter people from actually engaging in these activities," Strach told members of the House Elections and Ethics Law Committee.
McCrae Dowless, who is accused of running the absentee ballot harvesting operation, has been charged with obstruction of justice, conspiracy and illegal possession of an absentee ballot in connection with his work in the 2016 general election and the 2018 primary. Four of his associates also face charges.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said she expects more charges – and possibly more defendants – after she reviews the findings of the State Board of Elections hearing.
Strach noted that possessing someone else's ballot is one of only two felony offenses related to absentee voting – a nursing home employee assisting residents voting is the other – but it's the lowest-level felony in North Carolina. All other offenses, such as falsely witnessing a ballot, are misdemeanors, she said.
Measures that could deter absentee ballot fraud, Strach said, include the following:
- Prohibit people from being paid for each absentee ballot request they submit.
Some associates of Dowless testified during the State Board of Elections hearing that they were paid not by the hour but by how many absentee requests and, later, how many ballots they were able to secure. Strach said this set-up encourages people to submit names of people who don't want an absentee ballot of even bogus names.
- Require absentee ballots requests to be submitted in a timely manner and punish people for not doing so.
Strach said some absentee requests in Bladen County were held for months before they were submitted, and such practices could disenfranchise voters if the requests aren't submitted in time.
- Prevent copying of information on absentee ballot requests.
Strach said allowing third parties to maintain such information not only increases the likelihood of identity theft, it also leads to absentee ballots requests for voters being submitted in future elections even if they no longer want one.
- Allow absentee ballot requests to be submitted without photo identification.
Again, Strach said, limiting the photo ID requirement to the submission of an actual ballot would cut down on the potential for identity theft or other misuse.
- Require absentee ballot witnesses to date their signatures.
The State Board of Elections began including a date line next to the witness signature line on absentee ballots last year, even though not required by law, Strach said, because it helped turn up inconsistencies that investigators could check.
- Create prepaid absentee ballots
Strach said some people don't want to have to pay for postage to vote. Sometimes, people don't even have stamps or can't figure out how much postage to use, she added.
The State Board of Elections is already simplifying its absentee voting instructions and trying to educate voters and train county elections workers to reduce the chance of fraud, Strach said.
She also asked lawmakers for more funding so her office can add investigators, expand the data resources staff uses to search for irregularities and increase administrative staff to assist counties.