Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
We’ve got candidates campaigning. We’ve got issues. We’ve got voters and an election schedule. The do-over race for the 9th Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives has all the necessary pieces in place.
All but one thing: We don’t have reforms that will increase the security of the absentee ballot process — the reason why we’re in this encore political performance.
Perhaps we don’t need to worry much about cheating in this election. Safe to expect many more official eyes on this one than usually monitor our elections. The State Board of Elections will be a presence in the district, well before the early voting begins. Board officials have already made it clear there will be more training for at least Bladen County’s board of elections, where security lapses were on display during last year’s election. State and federal investigations of an alleged illegal “ballot-harvesting” operation are still underway and further shenanigans seem unlikely when there is so much scrutiny.
But still, we’re not seeing any sense of urgency in the General Assembly to fix what went wrong in Bladen, Robeson and perhaps other counties. The Republican majority of lawmakers, who have made voter ID and other security reforms their consuming passion for nearly a decade, have yet to show the same fervor for making absentee ballot fraud equally difficult, despite the fact that it’s the one place where we have seen real election fraud on a relatively large scale.
The ballot-harvesting operation allegedly run by political operative McCrae Dowless may have altered or destroyed hundreds, or even thousands, of absentee ballots. The operation may have tipped the election to former GOP candidate Mark Harris.
But while there’s been no legislative rush for absentee ballot reform, there has been interest. Earlier this month, State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach made several recommendations to the House Elections and Ethics Law Committee. Her board’s investigation of the last election, she said, showed how the activities of outside groups collecting ballot request forms can lead to abuses.
Strach asked the panel for legislation that would prohibit third-party groups from paying workers for each request form they collect, because that can lead to workers increasing their pay by fabricating requests. Those collectors should also be required to turn in those request forms in timely fashion and be penalized if they fail to deliver them to the local elections board.
Strach also suggested that harvesting operations could be discouraged by simply providing prepaid mailing envelopes with absentee ballots, which would make individual voters more likely to mail in the ballot rather than handing it over to a campaign operative, as happened in Bladen and Robeson counties. She asked for tougher penalties for violations of absentee-ballot laws, which now are misdemeanors or the lowest grade of felony.
“We need strong consequences for election interference,” she said.
And she made one more request, which also is the most important: She needs better state funding for her office, so she can increase the number of employees who administer elections and investigate possible violations.
Given the legislative enthusiasm we’ve seen for most of this decade for cracking down on forms of voting fraud that may or may not really exist, we’d think members of the General Assembly leadership would put a premium on stopping fraud so severe that it invalidated an election and prompted a do-over. The absentee ballot fraud in the 9th District is leaving voters there without a representative in Washington, perhaps for as long as a year.
Last year’s 9th District race should point the way to reforms that are really needed. We hope we’ll see them enacted by the General Assembly this year.