What’s the political controversy in North Carolina’s 9th district?
For years, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina claimed they wanted to protect the integrity of elections, but pushed voter ID bills designed to protect their party’s majorities. Those bills dealt with in-person voter fraud, which is rare in our state and across the country. This editorial board, along with many others, have long said that real voter fraud takes place well before someone might need to flash a photo ID.
Along came last year’s NC-09 U.S. House election, which was tainted by widespread absentee ballot fraud in Bladen and Robeson counties. Now, lawmakers are poised to provide North Carolina with a bipartisan bill that comes close — although not close enough — to dealing with a real election problem.
House Bill 944 would make it a crime to sell or pay for absentee ballot request forms, a tactic allegedly used by Bladen County operative McCrae Dowless to help swing the NC-09 election to Republican Mark Harris. The bill also would require counties to keep a register of absentee ballots requested and issued, which some but not all NC counties already have.
Perhaps most importantly, HB944 would provide money for three new State Board of Elections investigators and two data analysts who could root out and pursue voting irregularities. That money — $345,564 — would be included in the state budget to ensure that the board of elections has the resources it needs to investigate future election problems, reports Colin Campbell of NC Insider.
Those provisions align with what elections board executive director Kim Strach recommended in a recent meeting with lawmakers, but HB944 can do better. For starters, the bill could call for stiffer absentee ballot punishment than a Class 2 misdemeanor, and it doesn’t include another Strach recommendation: mandating that absentee ballots have prepaid postage. Currently, voters have to pay for their own stamps to mail their absentee ballots back to their county election office. Pre-paying for postage might prevent voters from giving their absentee ballots to people who offer to pay the postage costs.
A separate NC House bill includes the pre-paid absentee ballot proposal, and the Senate also is considering a bill that would require a voter in need of absentee ballot assistance to request a team from the county elections office. That might be a step too far — the bill appears to forbid family members or legal guardians from helping, which could be an obstacle to voting rather than protection against a real threat.
Lawmakers should take an additional step to protect against absentee ballot fraud by moving to coordinate voter databases with other states. That would stop those who move from voting twice, which experts say is the most common type of voter fraud.
HB944 is a strong start with good intentions. We encourage lawmakers to make it better. Meanwhile, advocates for election integrity should be vigilant against the other threat to NC voting — Republicans who continue to push for measures that make it harder for hundreds of thousands of people, including college students, to vote.