N.C. election debacle reveals the real fraud threat

Irregularities involving absentee ballots in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District appear likely to lead to a new election. For years, elections experts have warned that absentee ballots are particularly vulnerable to fraud, yet the state's Republican-controlled legislature focused its attention on voter ID laws that address the very rare problem of voter impersonation while having racially discriminatory effects. (Map via Wikipedia.)

With the voter ID bill recently approved by the North Carolina Senate on the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper, an unfolding disaster involving manipulation of absentee ballots in two counties in the rural eastern part of the state has raised concerns about a more imminent threat to democracy than the exceedingly rare problem of in-person voter fraud solved by ID requirements.

The situation in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District stretching from Charlotte to Fayetteville shows that fraud can be a problem in elections —  just not in the way the Republican-led legislature has talked about.

State election officials are investigating whether there was an organized effort to illegally collect absentee ballots from thousands of voters and then not give those ballots to the proper election authorities. State officials are looking into 14,056 absentee ballots requested for voters across the 9th District in 2018 — 10,651 that were returned and 3,405 that were not. According to unofficial results, Republican Mark Harris has only 905 votes more than Democrat Dan McCready, who withdrew his concession last week. A new election looks increasingly likely.

Bladen County, population 35,000, had the state's highest rate of absentee ballot requests, and an unusually large portion of them — 40 percent — were never returned to the county elections board. In neighboring Robeson County, 62 percent of the absentee ballots requested were not returned.

An analysis by The News & Observer found that the unreturned ballots, especially in Robeson County, were "disproportionately associated with minority voters," who tend to vote for Democrats. Bladen County's population is 35 percent African-American and 2 percent Native American, while Robeson's is 25 percent African-American and 38 percent Native American. Both counties also have poverty levels higher than the state average.

While McCready overwhelmingly won a majority of the mailed-in absentee ballots in seven of the eight counties in the 9th District, Harris won 61 percent of the absentee ballots in Bladen County, even though registered Republicans accounted for only 19 percent of the accepted ballots.

This week also brought revelations that Bladen County election workers tallied early votes before Election Day and allowed outsiders to view them — yet another violation of state election law.

The state elections board will hold an evidentiary hearing by Dec. 21 to decide whether the irregularities affected enough votes to change the election results, and whether a new election is needed.

The unresolved congressional race exposes the problems that can occur with the use of mail-in absentee ballots, which should have come as no surprise to elections officials and state lawmakers. As far back as 2006, a report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, based in part on interviews with election administrators and prosecutors, found that the risk of in-person voter fraud is minuscule compared to absentee ballot fraud:

[T]he interviewees largely agreed that absentee balloting is subject to the greatest proportion of fraudulent acts, followed by vote buying and voter registration fraud. They similarly pointed to voter registration drives by nongovernmental groups as a source of fraud, particularly when the workers are paid per registration. Many asserted that impersonation of voters is probably the least frequent type of fraud because it is the most likely type of fraud to be discovered, there are stiff penalties associated with this type of fraud, and it is an inefficient method of influencing an election. 

Despite the evidence showing that absentee ballot fraud is a serious risk with the potential to actually affect the outcome of races, North Carolina Republicans have instead pushed hard for a photo ID law, which addresses only the unlikely risk of voter impersonation. In 2013, the GOP-led legislature implemented a strict voter ID law, citing the need to prevent voter fraud.

After a federal court determined that the law was racially discriminatory and unconstitutional, lawmakers decided to put voter ID in the state constitution via the referendum process. The amendment passed last month with more than 55 percent of the vote, leading to the legislation that's now with Cooper.