- Ballot harvesting is a crime that has long plagued North Carolina politics
- Current law makes it unnecessarily difficult to prosecute or prevent ballot harvesting
- There are several reforms the Generally Assembly can institute to improve absentee ballot security without unduly burdening citizens
The alleged ballot fraud conducted by McCrae Dowless and others in Bladen County has exposed a weakness in North Carolina’s voting laws that raises questions about the integrity of our electoral system. Those concerns are centered on a particular form of ballot fraud known as ballot harvesting.
The problem of ballot harvesting
Ballot harvesting is the practice of people collecting absentee ballots from voters with the promise of delivering those ballots on the voters’ behalf. The practice is done by paid or volunteer workers at the behest of candidates, party organizations, or interest groups. As I wrote in a previous article, Steven F. Huefner, a law professor from Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, pointed out that ballot harvesting increases the risk of several forms of voting fraud:
- Ballot harvesters can destroy or discard ballots from those whom they know or believe voted for the “wrong” candidate.
- Ballot harvesters can collect ballots in unsealed envelopes, or open sealed envelopes, and either alter votes or fill in blank portions of undervote ballots (those in which the voter did not vote in some races).
- Ballot harvesters can collect unfilled ballots and fill them in themselves.
- Ballot harvesters can exert improper influence on voters while the voters are completing their ballots.
Absentee voting fraud is not new to North Carolina politics. Gerry Cohen, a former staff attorney for the General Assembly and an expert on election law, noted that “North Carolina has a long history of this kind of thing, particularly in rural areas.” Gary Bartlett, who was the executive director of the NC State Board of Elections from 1993 to 2013, found a pattern to how ballot harvesting was conducted during his two-decade tenure:
A team of two targets elderly or low-income voters and has them apply for an absentee ballot. Once the ballot arrives, they may help the voters fill it out. They sign as the two necessary witnesses and offer to mail it. If the voter marks a choice that’s not the team’s candidate, it’s not mailed.
Since absentee ballot requests are a public record, ballot harvesters can also target people they know have requested ballots but have not yet turned their marked ballots into the local board of elections.
Source of Graphic: NC State Board of Elections
The difficulty of enforcing prohibitions of ballot harvesting
Bartlett (see previous link) also noted that local prosecutors have generally been less-than-diligent in pursuing allegations of voting fraud, with officials failing to investigate allegations of absentee ballot fraud in Yancey, Bladen, Robeson, Mitchell, Swain and Columbus counties.
One difficulty with investigating allegations of ballot harvesting is that there is not an obvious paper trail for investigators to follow. There can be signals that ballot harvesting may be taking place, however. One such signal is when a single person turns in multiple absentee ballot requests. For example, McCrae Dowless turned in well over 500 absentee ballot requests to the Bladen County Board of Elections during the 2018 general election. Several other people in Bladen County also turned in batches of absentee ballot requests. However, investigators must go to individual voters to ask them if someone other than a near relative took possession of their ballot.
That problem is exacerbated by the fact that many of the victims of ballot harvesting are not aware that the harvesters are doing anything illegal. When someone knocks on their door to collect ballots, people may believe that the ballot harvesters are doing legitimate work:
“Some girls go around and do that,” said Emma Shipman, 87, who lives in a modest home down a sandy dirt road on the outskirts of the small town of Tar Heel. “I thought she was assigned to do it, like them other girls were.”
The lack of awareness that ballot harvesting is a crime lessens the chance that it will be reported to authorities, making investigations into that from of voting fraud more difficult.
Reforms to help assure the integrity of absentee ballots
Given the difficulty of enforcing the law against ballot harvesting, there is a need to protect citizen’s votes by attacking some of the common practices associated with it. To that end there are several reforms the General Assembly can make to our absentee ballot laws so that large-scale ballot harvesting operations are more difficult to implement. Those reforms include:
- Providing greater protection to vulnerable populations from ballot harvesters by preventing political operatives from witnessing absentee ballot requests for patients in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes or rest homes or from marking the ballots of those patients
- Protecting ballot secrecy by making absentee ballot request information private until after a voter’s ballot has been submitted
- Reducing the risk of electioneering by political operatives while a voter is marking his or her ballot by banning people working for candidates, party organizations, or political action committees from witnessing ballots
- Reduce instances of large-scale ballot harvesting by preventing individuals from witnessing more than ten ballots of nonrelatives
The penalty for violating those provisions would fall on the ballot harvesters.
An additional reform would be to encourage citizens to use more secure means of voting by ending non-excuse absentee voting while preserving the right to vote absentee for over two million North Carolinians, including the elderly, those with disabilities, and those serving in the military.
While it is inherently more difficult to maintain ballot security once ballots are outside the safety of the polling place, these proposed reforms would increase the integrity of absentee voting without unduly burdening voters.
I provide more details on how to address ballot harvesting in part 2.