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The importance of election integrity has been highlighted by this year’s midterm elections, not only in the closeness of many races where each vote makes a difference, but also in the weaknesses inherent in absentee or mail-in balloting.
Republicans have made it an article of their faith that in-person voting fraud is a rampant threat to democracy. All around the country, the GOP has backed or forced through legislatures assorted voter ID laws that require voters to prove their identity with some form of photo identification, such as a driver’s license or passport.
Since any election can be determined by a handful of votes or even one vote, voter ID proponents argue with some justification that it is important to ensure that those who vote actually are who they claim to be and that they are entitled to vote in a particular election. This is the common-sense proposition undergirding the current crop of voter ID laws, logic sensible enough that 55 percent of North Carolinians approved a constitutional amendment in November requiring voters to present photo IDs.
Clearly, the joking comment “vote early and often” is not considered very funny to these folks. Voter fraud, of course, isn’t funny at all. It not only affects the elections where it appears, its mere presence undermines the democratic institution of voting, which is a bedrock of our political freedom.
The problem, in North Carolina at least, is three-fold. One is that Republicans have been using voter ID laws as a way to suppress the votes of groups of people — notably the elderly, young people and minorities who disproportionately lack photo IDs —who tend to vote for Democrats.
The Republican-led legislature in 2013 passed a voter ID law that was so full of non-ID related suppression tactics that the courts ruled it unconstitutional in 2016. Opponents of voter suppression fear the new constitutional amendment will have the same effect.
Fortunately, it appears that legislators did learn a lesson from their earlier court defeat. In a lame-duck session last week, the Republican majority passed a new voter ID law implementing the amendment that pretty much sticks to ID-related provisions. It also includes more acceptable forms of identification than in the previous law and makes it possible, at no cost to voters, for anyone to get an acceptable ID card from the state. It’s not an unreasonable bill on its own.
The second problem for the bill, and a big reason wary Democrats oppose it, is that it really isn’t necessary. It is a solution in search of a problem. In this last election, the State Board of Elections found only one case — one — of mistaken identity at the polls. Of all the ways to cheat in an election, false identities have not been a problem, at least in North Carolina.
And that leads us to the biggest problem with voter ID — it can’t catch the real sources of voter fraud. Ballot-stuffing, those very rare times it has happened, is done by conspirators behind the scenes, with no IDs involved. And the biggest potential opportunity for fraud occurs among absentee or mailed ballots, which is apparently what happened in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District this past November.
The State Board of Elections has twice refused to certify the election “victory” of Republican Mark Harris because of growing evidence that absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties were “harvested” and manipulated by the Harris campaign to give him the 905-vote victory over his Democratic challenger, Dan McCready. The accusations are serious enough, and credible enough, that it is highly likely there will need to be a new election for that district. It is a big black eye for the Republican candidate, who hired the miscreant workers.
The new voter ID law passed last week would not have caught this fraud. The absentee ballot process now involves an honor system, no proof of ID necessary, and there apparently were plenty of opportunities for mischief between the voter and the county elections board. The newly passed law contains a section authorizing the State Board of Elections to devise procedures for applying voter ID and safeguarding procedures for absentee ballots, but that’s a future promise, not a present reality.
There’s no reason except partisanship for Republicans not to have waited until the next legislative session to produce a voter ID bill. They still will have a majority and there isn’t anything obvious in the newly passed bill that couldn’t pass muster among fair-minded legislators. And it would have been far better for the legislature to hammer out a bipartisan bill, with spelled out protections against absentee ballot fraud, than to ram through the current bill now awaiting Gov. Cooper’s signature.
Perhaps such lame-duck lawmaking is its own form of election fraud, and a prime example of why North Carolina needs new faces — and integrity — in Raleigh.
Ken Ripley is a resident of Spring Hope and The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.