This op-ed originally appeared in The Laurinburg Exchange on September 12, 2019.
Was the alleged absentee ballot fraud that derailed the 9th Congressional District race last year a unique case of political malfeasance? No, it is the inevitable consequence of indifference to election fraud that election officials have allowed it to fester.
The dominant narrative that came out of the State Board of Elections’ hearing on absentee ballot fraud in the 9thCongressional District is that ballot harvesting (a form of absentee ballot fraud in which political operatives take possession of voters’ absentee ballots) was committed by one person, McCrae Dowless, in service of one candidate, Republican Mark Harris.
That narrative has been pushed by Democrat Dan McCready throughout the campaign for the 9th Congressional District redo election because it allows Democrats to portray McCready as a victim.
However, absentee ballot fraud in the 9th Congressional District race was more extensive than McCready has portrayed. There is evidence that people paid by the Bladen County Improvement Association PAC (BCIA) with money provided by the North Carolina Democratic Party were also engaged in ballot harvesting.
Testimony during the State Board of Elections hearing on the 9th Congressional District and media reporting last fall revealed at least three cases in which people employed by the BCIA allegedly took illegal possession of voters’ absentee ballots.
Those three alleged felonies are likely just the tip of the iceberg. An analysis by WRAL found that people paid by the BCIA had handled a similar number of ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties as those associated with McCrae Dowless.
People in Bladen County have been complaining about BCIA election activities since 2010, but prosecutors have done nothing, allowing the problems to fester.
To end the scourge of absentee ballot fraud, officials must prosecute all incidents of ballot harvesting, not just those that are in the news. While Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman has brought charges against Dowless and six associates for allegedly taking possession of absentee ballots, she has not brought any charges against people paid by the Bladen County Improvement Association who also allegedly took possession of absentee ballots. Such selective enforcement of the law against ballot harvesting continues the myth that such ballot fraud is rare and ensures that we will see more of it in the future.
While all eyes were on Bladen and Robeson counties after the 2018 election, ballot harvesting has been going on throughout North Carolina for years. Former Executive Director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections Gary Bartlett said he had referred “more than half a dozen” absentee ballot harvesting schemes to law enforcement officials from across the state, but they took no action. Prosecutors need to actively go after absentee ballot fraud complaints whenever and wherever they arise, not just when they become headline news.
The General Assembly must also act. Different versions of Senate Bill 683, which makes ballot harvesting more difficult, have passed both houses of the General Assembly by wide margins but the versions must be reconciled between chambers so it can be sent to Gov. Roy Cooper to sign. Members of the General Assembly must make sure that the versions of the bill are reconciled when they return to Raleigh on September 10.
Prosecutors must investigate and, when appropriate, prosecute all acts of ballot harvesting. If they do not, they are dooming North Carolinas to fall victim to it again and again.