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North Carolina’s Election Fiasco Is About Voter Suppression, Not Voter Fraud

Making voting harder would only make the problem worse

North Caro­lina voting issues are in the spot­light once again, thanks to swirl­ing ques­tions around the use of absentee ballots in the 9th Congres­sional district. 

Last week, the North Caro­lina State Board of Elec­tions voted unan­im­ously not to certify the 9th District’s U.S. House race — in which Repub­lican Mark Harris leads Demo­crat Dan McCready by a slim margin — because of irreg­u­lar­it­ies in the district’s absentee ballots. 

In partic­u­lar, fewer ballots were returned in the 9th District than in the rest of the state. In addi­tion, out of the 9th District ballots that were returned, there was a higher rate of ballots that were spoiled — and thus uncoun­ted — than in other districts, the Bren­nan Center’s analysis confirms. To top it off, these discrep­an­cies appear to have dispro­por­tion­ately affected low-income communit­ies. 

At least three voters in the 9th District have provided affi­davits stat­ing that indi­vidu­als came door-to-door to collect mailed ballots, accord­ing to reports in the New York Times. These unknown visit­ors allegedly told the voters that they would deliver their ballots. One voter, Date­sha Mont­gomery, repor­ted that she voted only for school board members and sher­iff, but the woman who collec­ted her ballot said that “she would finish it herself.” This is illegal under North Caro­lina law. If voters are getting help with the ballot deliv­ery, it can only be from certain direct family members (unless one of the special rules for nurs­ing home resid­ents is applic­able).  

The state is no stranger to voting-related contro­ver­sies: In 2016, a federal appeals panel struck down North Caro­lin­a’s law restrict­ing early voting and impos­ing strict voter ID require­ments. The panel called it “the most restrict­ive voting law North Caro­lina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.”

But the contro­versy over the 9th District race raises a new set of issues. Here are a few key points that should not get lost:

First, voters are not the prob­lem. 

Since 2010, 25 states have passed restrict­ive legis­la­tion making it harder for citizens to register or vote. These range from a strict voter ID law in Texas to shorter early voting peri­ods in Flor­ida. Collect­ively, these laws have placed the burden of elec­tion secur­ity onto indi­vidual voters and mistakenly posi­tioned them since as the main culprits behind elec­tion fraud. There is, however, no evid­ence of wide­spread fraud commit­ted by voters. Instead, legis­la­tion on elec­tion fraud in response to this contro­versy should focus on insiders or oper­at­ives with their special know­ledge of how the system works; on prevent­ing ballot tamper­ing; and on ensur­ing that absentee ballots are returned.

Second, this was voter suppres­sion, not voter fraud.

The concern should be whether there was tamper­ing with ballots cast by eligible voters. In the case of the 9th District, three voters filed affi­davits claim­ing someone unau­thor­ized had collec­ted their absentee ballots, which were later not coun­ted because they were “spoiled.” But someone seems to be trying to do a bait and switch. There have been no alleg­a­tions that the voters were not who they said they were. As a result, adding a strict voter ID law to the state consti­tu­tion, as some have called for, would not fix the prob­lem at hand. Addi­tion­ally, there already are laws in North Caro­lina around who can collect and return a ballot. (In this case, those laws were viol­ated because indi­vidu­als who are unre­lated to the voter are not allowed to collect that voter’s ballot, except in rare circum­stances involving people in nurs­ing homes.) 

Third, we need to invest­ig­ate whether this was the tip of the iceberg.  

In the 9th District, which is where the voters who filed affi­davits live, the spoiled ballot submis­sion rate (as a percent­age of all submit­ted absentee ballots) was 13.4 percent — more than a third higher than the rest of the state. In past years, it was essen­tially the same as the rest of the state. This differ­ence, however, was partic­u­larly concen­trated within certain communit­ies in the 9th District. No one likes to think that these voters may have been targeted based on their income, race, or polit­ical affil­i­ation, but that needs to be part of the inquiry. The three voters who have been named all live in neigh­bor­hoods where the median house­hold income is less than $50,000. In the 9th District, 22 percent of voters in neigh­bor­hoods in that income range had spoiled ballots, far higher than in neigh­bor­hoods with similar incomes else­where in the state. Higher-income neigh­bor­hoods in the 9th District, however, had lower rates of spoiled absentee ballots than compar­able neigh­bor­hoods in other congres­sional districts.

This, however, isn’t all of the story. Not only were submit­ted ballots from low-income neigh­bor­hoods more likely to be spoiled but these ballots were less likely to be returned at all.

The combin­a­tion of high spoil­age rates among the ballots that were returned (which agrees with the affi­davits filed by voters) and low return rates from these neigh­bor­hoods is cause for seri­ous concern. To be sure, there is not yet inde­pend­ent evid­ence that crim­in­als were collect­ing ballots and dispos­ing of them, but these numbers indic­ate that possib­il­ity.

Nonwhite voters in the 9th District were also much more likely to submit spoiled ballots than in other parts of the state. Although this dispar­ity is not as glar­ing as the dispar­ity arising from neigh­bor­hood differ­ences, it is still signi­fic­ant and worry­ing, and it demands further explan­a­tion. 

Finally, when we slice the data by polit­ical affil­i­ation, there are prob­lem­atic discrep­an­cies in the absentee ballot spoil­age rate. Repub­lican absentee voters in the 9th District were slightly more likely to submit spoiled ballots than Repub­lican voters else­where in the state. The differ­ence, however, is much greater among Demo­cratic voters: 18.7 percent of ballots returned by Demo­cratic voters in the 9th District were spoiled compared to just 12.5 percent of ballots outside of the district. 

To be clear, these numbers do not alone prove system­atic elec­tion fraud. They do, however, give cause to invest­ig­ate these voters’ claims.

Vote suppres­sion is destruct­ive. It weak­ens our demo­cratic insti­tu­tions and cheapens our demo­cracy. Cred­ible claims need to be invest­ig­ated, and perpet­rat­ors need to be held account­able.  It would be misguided to put addi­tional barri­ers in front of the ballot box for eligible voters when our energy should be spent on actual crim­in­als.

(Photo: Alex Wong; charts: BCJ)