Elections chief seeks changes to absentee ballot form laws

Kim Westbrook Strach, left, executive director of the Bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, questions a witness during the second day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th congressional district voting irregularities investigation Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh, N.C. North Carolina elections officials looking into ballot fraud in the country's last undecided congressional election are finding that votes were counted days ahead of Election Day in the rural county at the center of disputed results. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, Pool)
RALEIGH — Additional restrictions should be placed on how absentee ballot request forms can be collected to discourage the type of illegal activity alleged in a North Carolina congressional race last fall, the state’s election chief said Wednesday.

State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach made several recommendations to legislators, who would have to approve many of the changes that she discussed. Strach was the public face of the board’s investigation into absentee ballot irregularities that led the board last month to order a new election in the 9th District, essentially erasing the race’s November results.

The investigation showed the way outside groups can collect request forms from registered voters seeking traditional mail-in ballots can lead to abuses, Strach said.

“We want to make sure that voters are protected when they give forms to people in that process,” Strach told the House Elections and Ethics Law Committee.

Board investigators presented evidence in a February hearing that Strach said at the time showed a “coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme” during the 2018 general election in Bladen and Robeson counties, which is in all or part of the 9th District. According to testimony, the operation was led by McCrae Dowless, a political operative who had been hired to work for Republican candidate Mark Harris’ campaign.

Dowless and several workers were indicted two weeks ago on illegal ballot handling and other charges related to the 2016 general election and 2018 primary.

Dowless had testified in a 2016 board hearing that he paid his workers to collect absentee ballot request forms and turned them into the local elections board. Such activity is not unlawful. But testimony last month alleged Dowless paid people to visit voters who had received requested ballots and get them to hand the ballots over. It’s already illegal for anyone other than a guardian or close family member to handle a voter’s ballot.

Strach asked for legislation that would bar third-party groups from paying workers for each request form they collect, saying such per-form rates can provide an incentive for cash-strapped workers to fabricate requests using information from an unsuspecting voter. Absentee ballot collectors also should be required to turn in filled-out request forms in a timely manner and be penalized if they fail to deliver them to the local elections board office, she said.

Illegal ballot “harvesting” — when an individual or group takes another person’s actual mail-in ballot — could be discouraged if a law requiring the voter to turn in the ballot at their own expense be eliminated, Strach said. Instead, ballot return envelopes could be affixed with prepaid postage, she said.

Strach said people in this electronic age are less likely to have the stamps needed to mail a completed ballot themselves — making it convenient to hand it over to the person coming to their door.

Strach also asked for additional state funds to increase the number of agency employees for elections investigation and administration. Strach said she’d like to see increased penalties for absentee-ballot law violations, which are now either punishable by a misdemeanor or lowest-grade felony. They usually don’t require time behind bars on a first offense.

“We need strong consequences for election interference,” she said.