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Don’t be shocked by the North Carolina fraud allegations. Absentee ballots are much less secure than polling places.

- December 13, 2018

More than a month after the Nov. 6 midterm elections, North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District still doesn’t know who its next member of Congress will be.

State election officials are investigating serious allegations of election fraud in that district, in which Republican Mark Harris’s campaign operatives may have illegally cast or destroyed absentee ballots. A number of residents have signed sworn affidavits describing people coming to their homes and urging them to hand over their unsealed ballots.

To be sure, the North Carolina allegations are unusually serious. But my research shows that campaigns and party organizations have been manipulating what’s called “no-excuse” absentee voting — sometimes legally, sometimes illegally — for almost as long as the law has been around.

What is no-excuse absentee voting, and why does it matter for political campaigns?

“No-excuse” absentee-voting laws mean that any voter may request an absentee ballot before Election Day, without having to give a reason. The idea is to make voting easier — and increase turnout — by giving citizens the option of voting early by mail.

But however laudable the goal of encouraging voting may be, these laws also gave political campaigns and party organizations incentives to encourage likely supporters to vote by absentee ballot. And it’s having lasting consequences for how political operatives mobilize voters.

How I did my research

To evaluate precisely how campaigns and parties adapted to no-excuse absentee voting, I conducted an in-depth examination of campaign histories in five states that adopted no-excuse absentee voting between the 1970s and 2000s: California, Washington, Wyoming, Wisconsin and Ohio.

In each state, I worked to see how campaign strategies shifted after the change. By going through state legislative archives and state and local newspapers, I found firsthand accounts that enabled me to assess those changes over time.

How has a well-meaning voting revision turned into a political campaign tool?

When first adopted in Washington and California in the 1970s, no-excuse absentee voting gave campaigns new — and perfectly legal — tactics for securing absentee votes. They developed relatively simple but effective practices for mobilizing absentee voters that are still used. They’d send their likely voters materials encouraging them to apply for absentee ballots and receive daily lists of voters who requested ballots from local election administrators. Campaign workers would then follow up, encouraging voters to return their ballots to election administrators.

But there’s a catch. Most American voters are familiar with the checks in place at polling places to ensure that voting is proper and fair, however imperfect they may be. For instance, in states with paper ballots, as prospective voters enter the polling place, trained poll workers check their names and addresses on voter rolls before handing over ballots to be filled out in the privacy of the voting booth. After someone has filled out the ballot, a separate set of trained poll workers checks off names and addresses again before he or she is allowed to insert the ballot to be counted.

By contrast, no one oversees voters filling out absentee ballots to ensure that they fill out the ballot and return it without tampering.

Campaigns and parties have taken advantage of this by turning to campaign and party workers to deliver and return absentee ballot materials for voters — on the honor system.

Questionable — and fraudulent — approaches to absentee voting

I found some questionable tactics that may not go as far as outright ballot tampering or destruction. In California, for example, court cases in the 1980s challenged whether it was legal to allow someone else besides the voter to help fill out and return the ballot — for instance, going to nursing homes to help elderly and disabled people complete and return the ballots to the elections office. In the end, courts allowed the practice.

Another California case challenged absentee ballot applications that the state GOP headquarters had sent out, collected and returned to election administrators for processing. Though that technically violated the state’s election code at the time — which mandated that absentee ballot applications hew to a standardized format and be returned directly to local election officials once filled — the secretary of state refused to punish voters for the Republican Party’s mistakes, and voters received their ballots.

But of course, election integrity depends most on preventing people other than voters filling out ballots without the voters’ instructions. And I did find instances of such tactics. For instance, in California during the 1980s, campaign workers — and sometimes candidates themselves — showed up at citizens’ homes and asked for their blank ballots, either filling them out or never returning them. And in Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization connected with a Milwaukee Democratic candidate persuaded some citizens to have their absentee ballots delivered first to the organization’s headquarters — not to the voters. Some employees then filled out the ballots, forged the voters’ signatures and cast the ballots fraudulently.

What should be done?

Elections officials have yet to figure out how to oversee absentee voting to keep third parties from manipulating votes. One possible fix might be to ban any third parties from handling absentee-ballot materials. But for several reasons, that may not be an effective solution.

First, political operatives argue that helping voters cast absentee ballots — as long as it is done without tampering with the ballot — helps those who may otherwise have difficulties voting. Two, if campaigns are benefiting from this system, why would politicians and officials change it?

Finally, banning third parties from handling absentee ballots might not fix the problem. Consider that North Carolina’s election code clearly states that third parties cannot handle absentee ballots except under limited circumstances. And yet this is precisely what is being investigated in the state’s 9th Congressional District.

Mara Suttmann-Lea (@Mara_Suttmann) is an assistant professor in the department of government and international relations at Connecticut College.