I had the opportunity to sit in on a hearing of the General Assembly’s House Committee on Elections and Ethics Law last Wednesday. On the agenda of that hearing was a report by State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach on absentee ballot reform.
Considering how packed the state board’s hearing on alleged absentee ballot fraud in the Ninth Congressional was a month earlier, I got there a little early to beat the crowd. However, there were more empty observer seats than full ones during the committee meeting; I suppose that policy proposals aimed at preventing future absentee ballot fraud are not as sexy as hearings into the past acts of absentee ballot fraud that necessitated those proposals.
Strach proposed several reforms to how absentee voting is conducted in North Carolina. Those proposed changes include increasing penalties for various forms of absentee ballot fraud, requiring local boards of election to maintain logs of who submits absentee ballot requests, and easing the absentee voting process by making absentee ballot return envelopes postage paid.
The postage proposal got quick bi-partisan support among the representatives in the room. Committee co-chair Holly Grange (R – New Hanover) called it a “no-brainer”, adding:
Why haven’t we done that before? It would have, perhaps, precluded some of the problems we had in Bladen and Robeson counties.
While Strach’s recommendations are a step in the right direction, they do not address sufficiently practices associated with ballot harvesting, the practice of political operatives (paid workers or volunteers for campaigns, parties, and interest groups) collecting absentee ballots from voters. Current law makes it too easy for pollical operatives to get their hands on people’s ballots despite the practice being illegal in North Carolina. There are several changes to current election law that could be made to curtail ballot harvesting:
- Make it a felony for political operatives to mark the ballots of nursing home patients or assist them in marking ballots.
- Make absentee ballot requests confidential until a voter has submitted his or her absentee ballot or election day, whichever comes first.
- Make it a misdemeanor for political operative to act as a witness for an absentee ballot.
- Make it a misdemeanor for anyone to witness the absentee ballots of more than 10 people other than near relatives.
There should be exceptions in the law for people working as part of a multipartisan team. Every county board of election is required by state law to set up those teams of volunteers from multiple political parties to help people exercise their right to vote.
If absentee voting laws are not sufficiently updated this year, we should expect to hear more stories about ballot harvesting in North Carolina elections in the not-so-distant future.