FAQ: What To Know About Illegal Voting In North Carolina
In one of his many campaign-season visits to North Carolina this year, President Trump said this in Wilmington:
"If you get the unsolicited ballots, send it in and then go — make sure it counted. And if it doesn't tabulate, you vote. You just vote. And then if they tabulate it very late, which they shouldn't be doing, they'll see you voted, and so it won't count. So, send it in early, and then go and vote. And if it's not tabulated — you vote. And the vote is going to count."
Well, voting twice in North Carolina is a felony — something the state's elections director reiterated with a warning the morning after Trump's visit.
But, to be fair, this is a confusing election season. We're living in strange times, and the coronavirus pandemic is changing the way many of us cast our ballots. With that in mind, WFAE asked the North Carolina State Board of Elections for tips on how voters can make sure what they're doing is above board — and what the consequences are for running afoul of the rules.
What Are The Legal Consequences Of Voting Twice?
Again, this is blatantly illegal. State law, which you can read here, makes it a felony for any voter "with intent to commit a fraud to register or vote at more than one precinct or more than one time … in the same primary or election."
Not only is voting twice illegal but so is soliciting someone to vote twice.
What Kinds Of Illegal Voting Are There?
There's more than one way to vote illegally. And it's important to note that some people may not intend to vote illegally but still inadvertently wind up doing the wrong thing.
Absentee-ballot requests have skyrocketed this year, and there are several things voters should be aware of if they're filling out ballots from home.
For example, it's generally not OK for voters to let someone else fill out their absentee ballot, although there are some exceptions for legal guardians or near relatives. If they're not available, the voter is able to request help.
It's also illegal for someone other than the voter or close relative or guardian to take a voter's absentee ballot back to the county board of elections (or even to deliver the ballot to the voter).
Here's more if you want to brush up.
Mail voting aside, there are still several election-related activities that can get people in trouble. Here are a few things that can wind up getting you charged with a felony:
- Fraudulently getting your name (or anyone else's) on the registration books in more than one precinct. If you need to check your registration to make sure it's accurate, you can do so here.
- Asking for or agreeing to receive money, property or "any other thing of value whatsoever" in exchange for your vote.
- Threatening or assaulting any elections official.
- Trying to convince someone who is not a U.S. citizen to vote.
And there are also plenty of rules for elections officials, too, with felony charges possible for officials who do things like alter ballots or take kickbacks from candidates.
Can Felons Vote?
Yes. But things can be tricky.
For example, The New York Times in 2018 profiled several cases of people being prosecuted for illegal voting in Alamance County. Several of the people interviewed were on probation or parole and, no longer physically being locked up, were unaware they weren't supposed to vote.
It's usually unintentional.
"Often, this is because the voter did not understand his/her rights at the time of the vote," said a State Board of Elections spokesperson.
And the law just changed again this year.
In September, a Wake County Superior Court judge ruled that convicted felons can't be denied the right to vote solely because they still owe money in fines, fees or other court-imposed obligations. But that's only the case if they've completed all other parts of their sentences, including probation and parole.
Here's a memo from the state's elections chief, Karen Brinson Bell, explaining the changes to county boards of elections.
How Does the State Investigate Allegations Of Illegal Voting?
First things first: Cases of illegal voting are few and far between.
"In North Carolina, elections violations are neither widespread nor nonexistent," reads an explainer from the state. "They involve a very small fraction of those who participate in elections. Elections violations are most often isolated events that are typically not coordinated and are not confined to any single political party."
The state is also quick to point out there's a difference between election fraud and voter fraud. Election fraud is when people try to interfere with the actual process of an election through schemes like buying votes, harvesting ballots or altering ballots. Voter fraud, meanwhile, is when someone who knows they're not allowed to vote does so anyway.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections launches reviews when it's notified about potential cases of illegal voting or other voting irregularities. If the complaint meets the criteria for a possible violation of the law, the state opens a formal investigation.
The state board can even issue subpoenas and hold hearings, as seen in early 2019 during the fallout over the previous year's 9th District election, which was eventually redone.
If there's evidence of illegal activity, the State Board of Elections refers its findings to county prosecutors. In a five-year period ending in 2019, that happened 570 times. Keep in mind, that number represents all kinds of illegal voting, and 81% of those cases involved convicted felons who voted before their sentences were completed. Forty-nine cases involved people allegedly voting twice, and 10 cases involved absentee-ballot fraud. Also worth keeping in mind: Just because something gets referred to a district attorney's office doesn't mean cases always move forward to trial.
Are There Safeguards In Place?
Photo IDs are not required in order to vote in this year's election. Voters are, however, asked to verify their identity by other means at their polling sites, such as by name and address of registration.
Poll workers have books with information about people who have already voted, so if someone shows up as having already voted, they'll be denied a regular ballot. If they feel like that's an error, they can request a provisional ballot, and elections staff will later "determine whether it should be counted" after Election Day during an audit for irregularities.
Of course, if you're doing everything right, it would be a jarring experience to be told that someone else has already used your name to vote.
"This is a rare occurrence and may happen occasionally as a result of poll worker error, such as a Jr./Sr. mix-up," a State Board of Elections spokesperson said in an email. "A voter may alert an election official that he or she has not already voted and cast a provisional ballot."
What Should You Do If You Suspect Illegal Voting?
Here's what the state says: "If you suspect an elections violation, please report the violation to your county board of elections or to the State Board of Elections. If you notice suspicious activity at a polling site, please notify a poll worker and follow up with your county board of elections."
What's The Best Way To Make Sure You're Not Accidentally Doing Something Illegal?
According to the state, incomplete witness information is so far the biggest problem with absentee ballots. As of now, the State Board of Elections is awaiting a judge ruling on what to do with ballots with errors. Those ballots are being kept in a secure location until the courts issue a final decision.
If you've filled out an absentee ballot but not returned it you may still vote in person.
"If you request an absentee ballot and decide you’d rather vote in person, you may do so as long as you did not complete and return the absentee ballot," the state says. "Simply tear up and throw away the absentee ballot."