Update: An earlier version of this article read, “Under current law, anyone can submit absentee ballot applications on behalf of anyone else.” whereas it should have read, “Under current law, anyone can submit absentee ballot requests on behalf of anyone else.”
- Ballot Harvesting is an ongoing problem plaguing North Carolina’s absentee ballot system
- The General Assembly can make several specific changes to election law to improve the integrity of absentee voting in North Carolina
- An NC Board of Elections report to the General Assembly on ballot harvesting, due by April 1, should kick-off debate on reforming absentee voting laws
As I have previously noted, ballot harvesting involves political operatives going to people who have received absentee ballots but have not yet voted, collecting those ballots, and (presumably) delivering them to the local board of elections. That additional set of hands on the ballot between the voter and the ballot box increases the vulnerability to several kinds of voting fraud. Last week, I followed up on the problem of ballot harvesting and provided an overview of how we could reform North Carolina’s absentee voting laws to address these concerns..
This article provides more detail on those proposed reforms. All the changes proposed here would be to Article 21 of the Elections and Ethics Enforcement Act and are designed to make ballot harvesting by political operatives more difficult.
Proposal 1: Provide greater protection to vulnerable populations from ballot harvesters
Current law: It is now a felony for owners or employees of hospitals, clinics, nursing homes or rest homes to mark patients’ absentee ballot or to assist patients in marking their ballots. Elected officials, candidates for public office, party officials and campaign managers or treasurers are also prohibited from marking patients’ absentee ballot or from assisting patients in marking their ballots.
Proposed reform: The main weakness in the current law is that it does not address the reality of how ballot harvesting is conducted. It is not candidates or party leaders who harvest ballots, but paid workers or volunteers for campaigns, parties, and interest groups. GS 163A-1298 should be amended to make it a felony for any paid or volunteer worker of a candidate campaign committee, political party, political party organization, affiliated party committee, political action committee, or any other organization at whose behest the individual designated to return the ballot is performing a service to mark the ballots of patients or assist them in marking ballots.
Current law requires county boards of election to set up multipartisan teams to assist patients with absentee voting. It is those teams, rather than political operatives working for the interest of parties or candidates, who should be assisting patients with absentee voting.
Proposal 2: Protect absentee ballot secrecy
Current law: 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.
Proposed reform: GS 163A-1306 should be amended so that absentee ballot requests are not made public until after the voter has submitted their ballot. The ballot requests of those who asked for an absentee ballot but did not submit it would be made public after election day. Keeping that information private until then would limit the ability of ballot harvesters to get their hands on voters’ ballots while maintaining a public record of absentee voting for transparency purposes.
Proposal 3: Reducing the risk of electioneering by political operatives while a voter is marking his or her ballot
Current law: It is a class 2 misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, for a candidate to serve as one of the two witnesses required to sign an absentee ballot container-return envelope. Once again, current law does not address the reality of how ballot harvesting is conducted, with campaign volunteers or workers being more likely than candidates to be directly involved in witnessing absentee voting.
Proposed reform: North Carolina’s prohibition of electioneering in a voting place by party observers (section c) is a clear sign of the intent of legislators to allow citizens to mark their ballots free of influence or coercion by political partisans. However, there is nothing in our current law preventing political operatives from being the only other people in the room while a citizen is marking an absentee ballot. A section should be added to GS 163A-1317 making it a class 2 misdemeanor for a paid or volunteer worker of a candidate campaign committee, political party, political party organization, affiliated party committee, or political action committee to act as a witness for an absentee ballot. The goal with this change is to minimize the potential for electioneering by political operatives.
An exception should be made for those witnessing the ballots of near relatives or witnessing ballots as part of a multipartisan team.
Proposal 4: Reduce instances of large-scale ballot harvesting
Current law: There is currently no restriction on how many absentee ballots an individual can witness. Since absentee ballots are mailed or otherwise provided to individual voters, the only people likely to be able to witness more than a handful of ballots would be those who are visiting many voters whom they know have absentee ballots, a description that matches the profile of ballot harvesters.
Proposed reform: An additional section should be added to GS 163A-1317 making it a class 2 misdemeanor for anyone to witness the absentee ballots of more than 10 non-near relative voters, unless that person is working as a member of a multipartisan team.
Proposal 5: Encourage citizens to use more secure means of voting by ending non-excuse absentee voting
Current law: In 2001 the General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to institute no excuse mail-in absentee voting. In addition to the multiple problems associated with mail voting that cause tens-of-thousands of mail-in ballots nationally to be rejected every election, absentee voting is more subject to fraud than in-person voting.
Proposed reform: To strike a proper balance between convenience for voters and ballot security, North Carolina should change 163A-1295 to return to the pre-2001 requirement for an excuse to vote absentee by mail (one-stop voting would still not require an excuse). Even with these changes, the option to vote absentee by mail would still be available to over two million North Carolinians, including:
- Those 65 years old or older
- Those unable to vote in person due to hospitalization, disability, illness, or pregnancy
- Those who will be out of their home county during the voting period
- Those who will be serving on a jury during the voting period
- Those who cannot vote in person during the voting period due to religious observances
- Those who are incarcerated but are not serving a felony sentence
- Those who are overseas or serving in the military
Another possible reform
While the second proposal above would deny ballot harvesters access to lists of people who have requested absentee ballots, they would still know about the ballots of one group of voters: those for whom the ballot harvesters filed absentee ballot requests. Under current law, anyone can submit absentee ballot request on behalf of anyone else. Exploiting that gap in the law, McCrae Dowless submitted 592 absentee ballot requests in Bladen County while two other people submitted more than 100 applications each. A NC House Representative has a suggestion that would address that problem:
State House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said the state should revert to the pre-2013 law and accept ballot requests only from individuals to lessen the risk for fraud.
The five measures proposed in this article, along with representative Jackson’s suggestion, can go a long way towards repairing the problems with our current absentee ballot laws. The ballot harvesting incidents in Bladen and Robeson counties during the 2018 election exposed weaknesses in our laws that ballot harvesters have been exploiting for years.
The NC State Board of Elections is due to present a report on ballot harvesting to the General Assembly by April 1. The General Assembly will be ready to move on legislation to address ballot harvesting soon after that report comes out. Absentee voting reform should be enacted in time to help protect the integrity of absentee ballots in the 2020 election.