After Election Fraud in North Carolina, Can We Trust Vote-by-Mail Ballots?

As more states expand absentee voting, elections boards must balance voter accessibility and ballot security.
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Last week, North Carolina's Ninth Congressional District began the process for redoing the election for its vacant House of Representatives seat. In November, Republican Mark Harris declared victory with a 905-vote lead, but in February, the state's board of elections nullified the results from the mid-terms and called for a new election—an extraordinary act of democratic mulligan that last happened in 1974. That year, the cause was a faulty voting machine; this year, it was electoral fraud related to absentee ballots.

In February, during a special hearing of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, witnesses testified that a Harris campaign operative hired workers to collect absentee ballots, and, for some that were not yet completed, had those workers chose candidates on the voters' behalf. As early as April of 2017, one of Harris' sons warned his father of the operative's shady endeavors, but the candidate denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of the scheme. In the wake of the fraud, a new law has been proposed in the state legislature, ostensibly to protect voters, but the re-vote comes at a pivotal moment for absentee voting.

Currently, legislatures are considering bills to expand absentee voting in Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. Earlier this month, Hawaii joined Colorado, Oregon, and Washington as states where all elections are, essentially, done by absentee voting, also known as "vote-by-mail" (VBM). Given the potential for fraud demonstrated in North Carolina, is this trend toward absentees wise?

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Regardless of the politics of a state, VBM is an attractive option. According to Gerry Langeler, the director of communications and research for the Vote at Home, a non-profit that advocates for greater implementation of VBM, the appeal spans the political divide. Conservatives tend to gravitate toward the system's cost savings, which are appreciable: A 2016 study from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that, three years after Colorado went fully VBM, it cut its election administration costs by 40 percent. Progressives generally like how VBM boosts voter turnout, especially among low-propensity voters and even controlled for conflating factors. In fact, for the 2018 mid-terms, the turnout for full VBM states was 10 percent higher than the rest of the nation, and the four states where, according to the Cost of Voting Index, it's easiest to vote are all either primarily or exclusively VBM.

VBM also boosts down-ballot engagement, which benefits local politicians whose get-out-the-vote efforts may turn out voters who never make it past the statewide races. According to one researcher from Emory University, this decrease in "ballot roll-off," when voters stop filling out their ballots, is "largely consistent with my argument that voters gather more information about politics when voting by mail," though Langeler points out that he knows of no studies that show a direct link between VBM and more knowledgeable voters.

Currently, all jurisdictions allow for some type of absentee voting, though each state differs on who it allows to cast a vote by mail and how easy the process is. To understand the different layers, Vote at Home has sorted the states into five tiers.

The most restrictive states require an excuse to vote absentee. Some of these excuses are clear-cut, like being a service member stationed abroad, but according to Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser to the Elections program at the Democracy Fund Voice, a bipartisan public policy foundation, the list of excuses can grow to a "ridiculous number." She points to Virginia, which has 20 potential excuses, many of which aren't being verified, including pregnancy, a religious obligation, and personal business outside the county. "No one's checking that stuff," she says. "It's just a bureaucratic layer, so what happens then is the excuse requirement is removed."

Some states wave the excuse requirement after a certain age (tier two), and others eliminate it altogether but require voters to apply for absentee ballots before each election (tier three). "That's fine if you are receiving a few hundred, or a few thousand, or even tens of thousands for every election," says Patrick, "but it gets to a tipping point where you can't physically enter in the requests fast enough to satisfy them."

States in tier four allow for a list of permanent absentee voters. States in tier five require all voters to vote by mail. According to Langeler, voters in tier four states often naturally gravitate toward the convenience of VBM, leaving states to pay for poll sites that are barely used. "Anywhere beyond 60 to 70 percent of people voting by absentee ballot, it starts to make simple economic sense to go 100-percent mailed out ballots," he says. This was the trajectory for Colorado and for Oregon, which became the first state to go fully VBM in 1998.

Complicating matters is that elections are administered at the level of the counties, which may be reluctant to adopt a fundamentally new procedure. "The worst thing that can happen to an election official is to have an election problem," says Langeler, "so they tend to be risk averse, with good reason." As an extra layer of caution, states may allow for all-mail elections without requiring it, and Montana, North Dakota, Arizona, Nebraska, Utah, and California all have counties conducting VBM elections.

That these states are mostly in the West is not a coincidence. "It's tough to have an efficient election system with people going to polling places when the population is so spread out," Langeler says. Compared to their peers, especially on the East Coast, these rural states generally have a smaller number of county governments, which are relatively strong and equipped with the infrastructure necessary to implement VBM. Consider North Dakota, which has 53 voting jurisdictions for almost 71,000 square miles, as compared to Connecticut (tier one), with three times as many jurisdictions in a state that's a little more than 1/13th the size.

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As more and more states consider VBM, they must be wary of the security lapses that plagued the program in North Carolina. According to Patrick, the issue there, counterintuitively, wasn't that the state had too few protections, but that it had too many. The state required either two witness signatures or a notarization and allowed only a close relative to return the ballot in-person, all while having too few drop-off locations.

"What's really secure is if the voter has control over how that ballot gets returned and has options in how it gets returned," Patrick says. "So, if those ballots had been pre-paid"—North Carolinians must buy their own stamps to vote absentee—"the voters wouldn't have needed to hand it over to somebody."

Instead of making voting easier on the voters, the North Carolina legislature is currently considering a bill that would require boards of elections to better track who is requesting absentee ballot forms, make it a misdemeanor to pay someone for collecting such forms, and fund the State Board of Elections to hire three investigators and two data analysts. According to a poll worker in Robeson County, part of North Carolina's Ninth Congressional District, the board of elections there is already keeping more thorough logs and paying greater attention to voter signatures.

Other states approach security differently. In Oregon, both the absentee envelope and ballot have a barcode unique to each voter, and in the larger counties, like Marion, a machine scans for any discrepancies between the two, or any duplicate barcodes. Then, a team of election workers trained in forensic handwriting analyzes the ballot signatures to verify the identification of the voter, who has two weeks to prove her identity should the signature be contested.

During this process, "everything that is happening is on camera at all times," says Tayleranne Gillespie, the communications director for the Oregon Secretary of State. "No one's ever by themselves counting ballots. It's always done in bipartisan teams."

Those layers of security aren't impervious, but the consequences for election fraud in Oregon are severe. In 2013, a poll worker convicted of altering ballots was banned from ever working an election again, sentenced to 90 days in jail, and ordered to pay $13,497 in fines and restitution. She had tampered with two ballots.

Besides security, states must also make sure that voters fully understand who's eligible for absentee ballots. For example, Florida is a tier-three state, meaning no excuse is required for an absentee ballot but voters must apply for one each election. The electorate in the state is pretty evenly split between absentee, in-person early voting, and voting on Election Day, but, according to Patrick, the VBM share might be bigger if more voters knew it was an option. "It was set up so that you had to be absent," she says. "You had to have a doctor's note or show a plane ticket to be able to vote in that way, so even if they're legally allowed to do it, voters may still think that they aren't."

Another obstacle for VBM is implementing coherent and uniform deadlines. "There are some places you can request a ballot by mail on Monday for Tuesday's election," Patrick says. "That's asinine. Even Friday is too late. The voter's never going to get it before Election Day."

On the back end, there must also be a reliable way to know which ballots have arrived on time. For example, during a race for the state legislature in Iowa last year, 29 absentee votes were contested for allegedly arriving late, despite testimony from the county auditor to the contrary. Eventually, the Iowa House, voting along party lines, decided to exclude the ballots, and the Democratic challenger lost by nine votes.

Especially when other methods of voting are available, controversies like these can discourage voters from fully embracing VBM, despite its many benefits. As voters return to the polls in North Carolina's Ninth Congressional District, it remains to be seen how they'll react. An hour before the deadline to return absentees in the re-vote, Robeson County had received just four.

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