It was a triumphant moment for North Carolina Republicans in 2013 when they enacted one of the nation’s most aggressive voter-identification laws. The measure would combat voter fraud, they argued — though, as federal courts later ruled, it would almost certainly reduce African-American Democratic turnout. At the same time, the law made it easier to obtain mail-in absentee ballots, a form of voting that Republicans used more than Democrats. But now, with an investigation underway into potential abuse of absentee ballots in a disputed House race, North Carolina’s tangled, partisan history of voting rights and fraud is under a spotlight — and Republicans find themselves on the defensive about whether their reliance on voter identification to combat fraud focused on the wrong source of trouble. “The history of fraud in North Carolina is mostly in absentee ballots,” said Bill Gilkeson, a former lawyer for the General Assembly who worked on election issues. “That’s where the fraud really happens, and there’s a long history.”
The recent focus on voter impersonation has overshadowed a longer-running political duel over absentee ballots and elections procedures in North Carolina. In the early 2000s, Democrats who controlled the statehouse tightened the requirements for absentee ballots, potentially starving Republicans of votes they had come to rely upon.
But in 2013, after taking control of both the Legislature and the governor’s office, Republicans approved sweeping voting legislation that imposed strict identification requirements at polling places — and eased the absentee rules once more.
Most crucially, the law allowed absentee-ballot request forms to be posted online for printing, opening the way for vast absentee-voting drives.
It is just such an effort, by a contractor paid by the Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris, that is under investigation in the state’s Ninth Congressional District. The contractor, a Charlotte-area consulting firm called Red Dome, hired a longtime state political operative, L. McCrae Dowless Jr., for a get-out-the-vote campaign.
Some of Mr. Dowless’s workers told news organizations that they mounted an aggressive absentee-ballot drive, including collecting ballots — some said to be unsealed or unsigned — from individual voters and delivered them to local election officials, an apparent violation of state law.