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North Carolina Absentee Ballot Rule Changes Get Final OKs

A silhouette of a voter casting a ballot.
Element5 Digital
North Carolina legislators made new absentee ballot rules after a scandal involving absentee ballots last year.

RALEIGH — North Carolina legislators finalized changes on Tuesday to beef up mail-in absentee ballot rules and punishments for violations after a voting fraud investigation of a congressional race led to a new election this year.

The bipartisan measure, which got unanimous support in the Senate and near unanimous backing from the House, now heads to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper for his expected signature.

Democrats also are in favor of the measure because it permanently restores early in-person voting on the last Saturday before state elections — something Republican lawmakers tried to end last year. The bill also would allow some counties to keep using touchscreen-only voting equipment for the March primary. They otherwise had to be out of service by this December and replaced.

Much of the legislation attempts to combat illegal ballot "harvesting," which occurred in the 9th Congressional District campaign, according to evidence collected in a State Board of Elections probe.

Leslie McCrae Dowless, a political operative working with Republican candidate Mark Harris, gathered hundreds of absentee ballots from Bladen County voters with the help of his assistants, witnesses told state officials.

Dowless' workers testified that they were directed to collect blank or incomplete ballots, forge signatures on them and even fill in votes for local candidates. Dowless and several workers now face criminal charges. The state board ordered a new election. Harris didn't run in the subsequent race, which was won narrowly on Sept. 10 by his successor as the GOP nominee, Dan Bishop.

The consensus legislation keeps a promise to combat such fraud in the future, a key Republican sponsor of the bill said.

"Secure elections are the most fundamental tenet of a democracy, and the policies we enacted today are intended (to) ensure the activity that took place last year can never happen again," said Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican, in a news release.

Under the bill, the traditional absentee ballot process remains largely the same: a registered voter fills out a ballot request form that gets sent to the elections board in their home county. The county board then sends an absentee "application" and a clean ballot to the voter, who then fills out both. Only the person or a close relative can mail in those documents or turn it in person.

The measure increases criminal penalties for people who attempt to sell or destroy others' completed absentee ballots. Only the voter or a close relative could now fill out all the forms. Until now, an outside individual could help with the ballot request form.

The bill also attempts to ensure that absentee ballot requesters and their identifying data, which are already collected on logs and are available for public inspection, would now stay private until the primary and the general election day. The confidentiality provision is designed to prevent mischief by political operatives.

The measure also would direct that absentee voters comply with a new photo identification mandate by returning a copy of a qualifying ID or other identifying number with their completed ballot. The statewide ID mandate begins with the March primary.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed a law in June 2018 to end early in-person voting on the Friday before the election day, rather than the Saturday date. In response to criticism, lawmakers quickly passed another law to bring last-Saturday voting back, but for the November 2018 election only.

Tuesday's votes come a day after the state Democratic Party and national Democratic campaign groups sued in state court to overturn the June 2018 law. Their lawyers argue the last Saturday of early voting has been extremely popular among black, Latino and young voters, and that eliminating it would violate their rights under the state constitution.

The last Saturday has been "heavily utilized throughout the state of North Carolina," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham County Democrat and bill sponsor.

The lawsuit also challenges the requirement that other early voting sites in counties stay open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, saying counties should have more flexibility. The final bill alters the uniform weekday hours from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.