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Pre-paid postage on absentee ballots would help prevent fraud, NC elections board says

Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the Bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, left, questions a witness during the second day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh.
Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the Bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, left, questions a witness during the second day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

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Election fraud investigation

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Election officials hope to crack down on fraud while making it easier to vote in North Carolina.

And so far, their ideas are popular among lawmakers.

Republican legislators on Wednesday offered support for several proposed changes to election laws and punishment for those who break them. The proposals, which still need to be formally proposed and approved by the General Assembly and the governor, come on the heels of one of the biggest election scandals in state history.

The N.C. elections board in February nullified the results of the 9th Congressional District race and ordered a new election, which is set for September. The apparent victor, Republican Mark Harris, was found to have benefited from what investigators called a “coordinated, unlawful, and substantially-resourced absentee ballot scheme.”

Kim Strach, executive director of the N.C. elections board, presented suggested changes at the House Elections and Ethics Law Committee on Wednesday. Among Strach’s more popular suggestions: using state funds to pay for postage associated with returning an absentee ballot.

Voters who want to mail their absentee ballots back to their county election office are required to pay for their own stamps. Strach said pre-paying for postage might prevent voters from giving their absentee ballots to collectors, who sometimes acquire ballots by offering to pay the postage costs.

N.C. Rep. Holly Grange, a Wilmington Republican who co-chairs the committee, called the postage idea “a no-brainer.”

“Why haven’t we done that before? It would have, perhaps, precluded some of the problems we had in Bladen and Robeson counties,” Grange said.

The elections board also asked legislators to:

Clarify that photo identification isn’t required to request an absentee ballot. Strach said some voters have had their privacy compromised because they allowed a third party (likely a political operative) to see an ID that included sensitive personal information.

Require people who witness absentee ballots to not only sign, but also date their signatures. People who fill out absentee ballots are required to do so in the presence of two people or someone who’s a certified notary. Those people aren’t required to date their signature. However, the N.C. elections board added a “date” line in 2018 after finding inconsistencies in ballot signatures in 2016. The date line has “investigative value,” the board said in a letter.

Require those who request absentee ballots to log in to county elections offices by signing a sheet. Some county elections boards do this already, but it’s not required. And the logs have “proved tremendously valuable in investigative efforts to identify those (people) delivering stacks of Absentee Ballot Request Forms to county boards,” Strach said in a letter.

Deter the practice of photocopying absentee ballot request forms. Some operatives and political organizations have obtained absentee ballots by making copies of request forms en masse using forms filled out for a previous election, Strach’s letter said. The elections board would like the ability to vary the form’s design and graphics each year, she said.

N.C. Rep. David Lewis, a high-ranking Republican from Harnett County, said modifying the form each year is an “inexpensive stroke of brilliance to make sure people aren’t trying to plant and harvest these forms over and over again.”

Harsher punishment?

Additionally, the N.C. elections board needs more money and staffing, Strach said. The workload is growing and investigative staff needs more resources to respond to emergency situations.

“We have a small investigative staff, but they’re a busy investigative staff,” Strach said.

The legislature should also strengthen the legal consequences for people who break election laws, she said. Strach didn’t suggest specific penalties, but pointed to punishments in need of strengthening.

While wrongfully possessing someone else’s voted absentee ballot is a felony, many other absentee-related violations are misdemeanors. Lying about witnessing a ballot is a misdemeanor. So is changing a voter’s information on his or her voter registration form.

Grange, the committee co-chair, said she supports the idea of stiffer penalties.

“Right now, it’s just a slap on the wrist to commit some of these acts,” she said.

Follow more of our reporting on The North Carolina election fraud investigation

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Paul “Andy” Specht reports on North Carolina leaders and state politics for The News & Observer and PolitiFact. Specht previously covered Raleigh City Hall and town governments around the Triangle. He’s a Raleigh native who graduated from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. Contact him at aspecht@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4870.
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