Politics & Government

Voter ID on mail-in ballots? It may take more than that to stop election fraud

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On the same day North Carolinians voted for Mark Harris to represent the 9th Congressional District, they also voted for voter ID to become part of the state constitution.

A lot has happened since then. The state elections board has yet to certify Harris as the winner of the race due to allegations of election fraud. Meanwhile, legislators have approved a bill to implement voter ID. And they’ve added a provision to require photo ID for absentee ballots in response to those fraud allegations in Harris’ race which center on those mail-in ballots.

But could voter ID have alleviated the confusion surrounding the validity of the absentee ballots in the 9th district?

The provision in the bill awaiting Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature or veto would require voters to “attach additional documentation necessary to comply with the 2 identification requirements.” Currently, absentee ballot voters already go through a two-step verification process which does not involve photo ID, according to Gary Sims, the Wake County Board of Elections director.

The first step “is a request that will authorize us to send you a [absentee] ballot, which we do administratively,” Sims said. “You still have to provide the required information.”

That formal request for an absentee ballot asks for information, such as a North Carolina driver’s license number or the last four digits of a voter’s Social Security number. This is meant to verify the voter’s identity. Voters then fill out the ballot, and sign it in front of two witnesses or a notary.

A federal law mandates first-time voters must send a photocopy of an ID or official document during the absentee ballot voting process in a federal election. This requirement only applies to voters who were not able to verify their identity while registering.

After a voter requests an absentee ballot from the state board of elections, they will be asked during the verification process for a photocopy of a photo ID or another document such as a utility bill.

Even though this law means there is a system in place that the state elections board could use as a model, it is still too early to know if it will be implemented on a larger scale. Voters could be asked to mail in a photocopy of their ID either when they make a request for an absentee ballot or are mailing their ballot back.

North Carolina would not be the only state to require photo ID for absentee ballots if this bill passes.

Eight states require voter ID during the absentee ballot process: Alabama, Illinois, Kansas, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Local boards of elections reserve the right to request a photo ID from voters in Utah.

Many other states require a copy of a photo ID if it is the voter’s first time voting in the state.

The North Carolina bill doesn’t clarify whether voters will have to submit a copy of a photo ID when they send back their absentee ballot request or their ballots.

Gerry Cohen, former special counsel at the General Assembly, says requiring photo ID during the absentee ballot process would be logistically difficult to manage. Some legislators, such as Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake Democrat, also worry the cost will be too great for some local election boards to handle.

“Are you supposed to send your driver’s license? What if you don’t have a photocopier?” Cohen said. He said the process could possibly exclude elderly or disabled voters who rely on absentee voting but who may not have access to a copy machine.

Cohen says there needs to be “a solution that isn’t worse than the problem.”

Cases of absentee ballot fraud in other states

North Carolina isn’t the first state to have the legitimacy of their absentee ballots questioned. It happened, for example, in a tight race in Dothan County, Alabama in 2013.

Amos Newsome was up for re-election as a Dothan County commissioner. He narrowly beat his challenger Lamesa Danzey by a margin of 14 votes — with Newsome securing 119 of the 124 absentee votes, according to the Dothan Eagle.

It later surfaced that Olivia Lee Reynolds, who worked on Newsome’s campaign, had completed people’s absentee ballots in favor of Newsome. She was charged with election fraud, as were three other people.

Voter ID was not in place at the time. Starting in 2014, photo ID became a requirement for absentee ballot voters.

And during the 2016 elections, the Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill ordered poll watchers to “observer absentee ballots and affidavits when they are called during the count.”

Hans Von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, authored a paper in 2008 about absentee ballot fraud that occurred in 1994 in Alabama, which resulted in 11 convictions.

“More than 1,000 of the absentee ballots were mailed by just five people ‘who brought in suitcases of ballots to the Eutaw Post Office the day of election in 1994.’ Thus, over one-third of all votes were cast with absentee ballots — far above the state average,” von Spakovsky wrote.

Patterns in election fraud

In the affidavits collected from absentee ballot voters in Bladen County, two voters are claiming a woman came to their homes to collect the absentee ballots. They say a woman did not seal the envelopes or ask them to sign it. It has not been verified if the woman who approached these two voters is the same person. This type of narrative falls in suit with some election fraud cases surrounding absentee ballots in the past.

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Robert Montgomery shows a campaign flyer given to him by his neighbor, who told him she was working for Mark Harris. Montgomery says he was tricked into filling out an absentee ballot for the republican candidate in the 9th congressional district of NC. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Myrna Pérez, deputy director at the Brennan Law Center, says implementing voter ID during the absentee ballot process won’t remedy the type of problem going on in the 9th district.

“The problem is not when someone in good faith collects a lot of ballots and sends them. It’s when someone in bad faith collects the ballots and is not sending them,” Pérez said.

In that situation, Pérez says, the “appropriate policy response is to limit and punish operatives” who are “are trying to stifle the vote.”

What’s next for voter ID

With the state Senate’s approval of the bill on Thursday, it now heads to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk. Initially, voter ID was expected to be used in the 2019 NC municipal elections. But Democrats are raising concerns about using the voter ID requirement — which would take effect immediately — in the event of a new election in the 9th district.

On Thursday, Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Buncombe County Democrat, called on Republicans to delay the voter ID implementation until after the special election — if one is called. “The possibility of a new election is very real and Republicans have only complicated this issue,” she said. “It is unconscionable to place this additional burden on the voters and our local boards of elections.”

The bill puts a March 15 deadline on the state elections board to approve government employee and student IDs that comply with the law; rules for absentee ballot ID would be approved by July 1. May 1 is the deadline for county elections boards to start issuing photo IDs to voters who request them.

Colin Campbell of the NC Insider contributed to this report.

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Rashaan Ayesh is The News & Observer’s Fact Checking Fellow. She looks into claims made by politicians and pundits all over North Carolina. She grew up in Raleigh and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contact her at rayesh@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4802.