An investigation into suspected fraud in a closely contested House race in North Carolina has shined a spotlight on an increasingly powerful tool in U.S. elections: mail-in ballots. The case in North Carolina’s 9th District, which centers on claims of an aggressive — and illegal — absentee ballot drive by a Republican operative, has resurfaced concerns about the security of mail-in ballots and the potential for fraud. It also raises questions about how vote-by-mail programs should be executed, especially with a growing number of Americans casting their ballots by mail. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of voters who cast mail-in ballots more than tripled, from 2.4 million to 8.2 million, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
But some experts say that mail-in absentee voting also raises the likelihood of ballot tampering, because there are fewer checks in place to ensure that completed ballots reach local election officials without interference from third parties.
“I think that it’s fair-minded to say that the fraud that we do see is associated with absentee ballots, because there are these points where an actor with ill intent can try to manipulate things,” said Paul Gronke, the director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore.
To be sure, fraud, either in mail-in or in-person voting, is rare. But Gronke expressed concern that the current allegations in North Carolina’s 9th District might prompt an overly aggressive response from lawmakers seeking to shore up the state’s voting procedures.
“I’m concerned that, with all the attention this has gotten, there could be a lot of overreaction,” Gronke said.
State investigators in North Carolina are looking into an alleged scheme run by Republican operative Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. who reportedly paid people to illegally collect voters’ absentee ballots in rural Bladen County and neighboring Robeson County.