- A proposed bill in the North Carolina Senate would combat ballot harvesting through several changes in election law
- It would also reinstate early (one-stop) voting on the last Saturday before Election Day
- One part of the bill and an amendment suggested by one senator leave open ways for continued absentee ballot fraud
While several proposals for reform have been floated in the General Assembly following allegations of absentee ballot fraud in the 9th Congressional District election last year, none strongly addressed ballot harvesting. As I previously noted, ballot harvesting is the practice of “political operatives going to people who have requested absentee ballots but have not yet voted, collecting those ballots, and (presumably) delivering them to the local board of elections.”
That changed last week with the introduction of S683, sponsored by senators Warren Daniel (R – Avery, Burke, Caldwell), Floyd B. McKissick, Jr. (D – Durham), and Ralph Hise (R – Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Yancey). The bill is on a fast track in the Senate, having gone from initial filing to approval by the Redistricting and Elections committee to approval by the Senate Rules committee in three business days. It is scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor on July 8.
Taking away some of ballot harvesters’ main tools
Before ballot harvesters can get a hold of ballots, they must first know which homes have ballots in them. There are two ways they can do that. I wrote last February that the first method is to take advantage of public records:
Absentee ballot requests are public records available to any registered voter who visits a local county board of elections up to 60 days before an election. The information in that public record includes the name and address of the person making the request, when the request was made, and when the ballot was mailed or otherwise delivered to the voter. By regularly checking in with the local board of elections, ballot harvesters can know when and where they can find ballots to harvest.
S683 would make absentee ballot requests private until election day, potentially cutting off that source of information to ballot harvesters. Without that information, ballot harvesters will not know which voters to target. The submission of an absentee ballot to the county board of elections (but, obviously, not the ballot itself) would still be a public record.
The other way that ballot harvesters know which homes have ballots in them is to file absentee ballot requests with the local board of elections themselves. Ballot harvesters take advantage of statewide standard absentee ballot request forms by filling out the entire form themselves and only going to voters for their signature. They then turn in batches of absentee ballot requests to the county board of elections. They can use these pre-filled forms for election after election, giving them regular sources of ballots.
The bill attacks that problem in two ways. First, it gets rid of the standardized state form for requesting an absentee ballot and goes back to the prior requirement that absentee ballot requests be written by the requester. To streamline the process, State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell told senators during a meeting of the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee last Monday that the state board would provide templates to help voters in writing their request.
Senators in the meeting also discussed the possibility of using standardized forms but making them unique to each election year. While the proposed amendment would still eliminate the practice of ballot harvesters coming to voters election after election with the same forms, it would still let them pre-fill those forms each year using their lists of targets from prior elections.
The second change is more important. The proposed legislation would require that absentee ballot requests be delivered to the county board of elections “only by the voter, or the near relative or the verifiable legal guardian of that voter, so requesting the absentee ballot.” That change would cut political operatives off from a part of the absentee voting process that they used to gain access to ballots. McCrae Dowless famously delivered over 500 absentee ballot requests to the Bladen County Board of Elections last year, but people associated with the Bladen County Improvement Association also delivered large numbers of absentee ballot requests there as well. That is a pattern that election officials have seen across the state.
The bill also includes increased penalties for some activities associated with absentee ballot fraud and creates criminal penalties for other activities, including unauthorized destruction of absentee ballots, unauthorized copying of absentee ballot requests, or paying someone based on the number of absentee ballot requests they submit. Some of those provisions will be made moot by the new requirement that only voters or their near relatives or guardians can submit absentee ballot requests.
Together, the changes in the bill would make ballot harvesting much more difficult.
The return of last Saturday voting
Another feature of the bill is that it would return early (one-stop absentee) voting to the last Saturday before election day. The first day of early voting would be pushed back one day, meaning that the total number of early voting days counties are authorized to conduct would remain unchanged.
Unfortunately, the bill would also allow county boards of elections to operate different schedules for early voting sites in the county on the last Saturday. This would give local boards the power to decide, for example, that some voters get access to early voting until 5:00 PM at their local one-stop voting site while others would only have such access until 1:00 PM. That is discretionary power local boards should not have. (UPDATE: The version of the bill that passed the NC Senate included an amendment that returned the uniform hours requirement for early voting.)
Dangers on the horizon
While the bill makes some positive changes, several provisions point to a couple of potential dangers ahead. The first is that making absentee ballot requests confidential may not stop ballot harvesters from getting that information through contacts at their local county board of elections. The bill should include criminal penalties for any county board of election official who provide information on absentee ballot requests to unauthorized outside individuals or groups.
Another potential danger comes from a suggestion made during discussion of the bill in a meeting of the Senate Redistricting and Elections committee on the evening of July 1. Senator Natasha Marcus (D – Mecklenburg) advocated counting ballots that come to local boards of elections after Election Day without a postmark indicating that they had been mailed before the election. While that senator suggested that ballots are coming to boards of election in North Carolina without postmarks, ballot container envelopes in North Carolina require stamps and all stamped mail is postmarked. Without a postmark (or postage validated imprint), there is no proof that a ballot came to the board through the mail, much less that it was mailed before Election Day. That would open an entirely new potential route for election fraud. (Prepaid business reply envelops are not posted marked, another argument against prepaid ballot container envelopes.)
While we should be mindful of these dangers, S683 is a significant step towards combating ballot harvesting.