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Follow the latest news and information about voting and the 2020 election, including essential information about how to vote during a pandemic and more.

In Mail Ballot Controversy, GOP Says Democrats Are Undoing 9th District Reforms

McCrae Dowless
Steve Harrison
McCrae Dowless walks to a hearing in 2019.

Two years ago, political operative McCrae Dowless was accused of illegally collecting — or harvesting — mail ballots on behalf of Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris in Bladen County. In some cases, blank ballots were allegedly filled in by someone else.

Washington, D.C., attorney Marc Elias represented the losing Democratic candidate, Dan McCready.

“I have been involved in elections disputes for 25 years, and this is the largest, most extensive example of election fraud that I’ve ever been involved in frankly and that I’m aware of in our country in the last quarter-century,” Elias said at the time.

Marc Elias
Marc Elias

Elias is the Democrats' premier voting rights attorney. He has made national media appearances on platforms like 60 Minutes arguing that Republicans are trying to suppress the vote.

This year he’s back in North Carolina.

But now he’s trying to undo some of the bipartisan reforms enacted after the 9th U.S. House District scandal that resulted in the state holding a new election.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Elias tried to get the state to temporarily remove the requirement that ballots have a witness signature.

He also pushed to allow voters to give their ballots or ballot applications to someone else, who would then deliver them.

Republicans say Democrats, and Elias in particular, are being hypocritical.

"Was he serious in 2018 when he brought an action to say North Carolina's laws basically fostered the fraudulent collection and counting of absentee ballots?" asked one of the state’s top Republicans, Senate leader Phil Berger. "Or is he serious now when he’s pushing a resolution to this lawsuit and has been pushing multiple lawsuits that actually make that sort of fraud more likely?"

Last month, the State Board of Elections, which has a Democratic majority, agreed to a settlement with the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans, which was being represented by Elias. The alliance wanted less restrictive rules for mail voting so seniors wouldn’t have to vote in person.

The board rejected some of the alliance’s demands. But for mail ballots with administrative issues, it did propose letting voters sign a “cure affidavit” in which they say the ballot is theirs and legitimate.

Republicans say that would eliminate the need for a witness signature. They point out that both Democrats and Republican legislators voted for the current election rules regarding mail ballots in two separate pieces of legislation, in 2019 and this year.

Democrat Damon Circosta, the chair of the state elections board, says the settlement was a good compromise between the upholding of reforms passed after the 9th District scandal and helping people vote.

“Some of the things that plaintiffs were asking for in various cases were just things we were not going to be able to do or didn’t want to do,” he said.

President Trump has been making unsubstantiated claims about fraud in mail voting across the nation for weeks. But when he’s traveled to North Carolina he’s been able to bring up the 2018 scandal — even if the people involved were Republicans.

“They wanted to put a Republican – a fine man – they wanted to put him in jail because he harvested,” Trump said during the Republican National Convention in Charlotte. “Now they’ll want to make harvesting legal all of a sudden.”

Elias declined to be interviewed for this story.

In the alliance’s complaint against the board, Elias wrote that he anticipated the state pointing to the 9th District scandal as a reason not to make voting easier during the pandemic. He said Dowless would have been able to perpetrate his scheme with or without new restrictions.

Democratic state Sen. Natasha Marcus says the GOP opposition to the cure affidavits is about voter suppression. She notes that originally the two Republican elections board members supported the settlement before resigning in what she says was an effort to discredit a bipartisan solution.

“It is shameful the way North Carolina Republicans are trying to manufacture a controversy here and they are interfering and sowing seeds of distrust in an election that hasn’t happened yet because they are afraid they are going to lose,” she said.

Federal Judge William Osteen last weekend issued a temporary restraining order stopping the proposed settlement. He’s expected to make a final decision next week.

There are about 11,000 mail ballots that are in limbo, with problems such as a missing witness signature.

Tell us about your voting experience. Did it go smoothly? Were there any problems? How were the lines? Did you feel safe? If so, why or why not?