Elections officials work to prepare for voting during a pandemic, in the shadow of an election fraud scandal

Updated: Apr. 23, 2020 at 5:51 PM EDT
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NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - This year was always going to be a challenging one for those working in North Carolina elections, as 2020 promises to bring massive turnout.

With cases of the novel coronavirus continuing to climb the prospects of running a “normal” general election have flown out the window. Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, says her agency is doing what it can to prepare.

“We don’t know what the situation is going to be in November,” she said, specifically referencing the rate of infection. “So our job as election professionals, anytime, is to prepare for the worst case scenario, and so that’s what we’re doing.”

In the short term, that means gearing up for two elections scheduled for June 23: a runoff in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, and a new Republican primary for Columbus County Commission District 2.

Under normal circumstances those races would have been held in mid May, but Bell said they were pushed back after the NCSBE staff talked with state health and emergency officials.

Bell said no matter what, all three voting options North Carolina residents are used to — in person on Election Day, in person at a one stop site and absentee by mail — will all be available for the June 23 races and for the general election in November.

However, they are having to make adjustments to ensure the safety of polling place staff as well as voters, which she said will be complicated and expensive.

“Be it hand sanitizer, be it the PPE [personal protective equipment] that we keep talking about, the face shields and things, those will be needed in our polling places,” she said.

County boards are being encouraged to look for larger potential polling places such as former department stores to facilitate physical distance between voters.

Bell said they are also trying to work it out so every voter who turns up in person would be issued both a mask and a pen or stylus to control cross-contamination.

Assuming those measures are still needed in November, that would translate to somewhere around $2 million just for masks needed for the expected overall turnout of 4-5 million voters.

The NCSBE is able to take advantage of about $11 million in funding from the CARES Act passed by congress, but there has to be a state match.

The greater challenge, however, is they expect requests for absentee by mail ballots to skyrocket.

“Traditionally, in a general election presidential general election, we would see about 4 to 5% of the ballots cast be cast absentee by mail. We have in looking at just what we’ve been seeing across the country as other states have continued their elections and their primaries, we’re gauging for a 30 to 40% participation by mail, and that’s a pretty significant change in operations,” she said.

Counties will need new high-speed scanners to process those ballots, as well as paper products and postage to send them out.

She said they will also likely need additional staff to process the ballots, looking for proper postmarks, signatures and other features of valid mail ballots.

“Elections are a lot about logistics, and so what we’re trying to consider is when you see that level of increase, we need to be prepared for that now.”

She said they will also need to work on educating many voters who have never voted absentee by mail before on what is and is not allowed — something particularly meaningful in the wake of the ballot harvesting scheme uncovered in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District.

As states adjust their plans for voting during a pandemic, the subject of absentee by mail voting fraud has made its way into headlines of nearly all media outlets as politicians, including President Donald Trump, have questioned the security of the voting method.

For North Carolina, absentee by mail fraud is a fresh wound, but not in the way the issue is generally framed.

The alleged activities of Leslie McCrae Dowless and his associates — which have resulted not only in a new election but both state and federal indictments — launched a rewrite of North Carolina’s absentee voting laws.

“In the fall, we actually worked with the legislature to try to strengthen our absentee by mail laws and the efforts to prevent voter fraud and ballot harvesting,” Bell said, referencing a bill in the General Assembly that tweaked requirements and made election fraud activities like those found in Bladen County a felony offense rather than a misdemeanor.

Bell said part of the reason the scheme was discovered in the first place was because of the security measures in place, including the requirement that absentee requests be logged.

Now, however, the NCSBE is asking for a partial, temporary easing of some of those new restrictions because of COVID-19.

“One of the things that we have to do in elections is ensure voters that their vote counts, and that they are able to exercise that right to vote. To do that at a time when we may be faced with disease that could put fear in whether they can even cast their ballot in a safe and healthy environment is one of the reasons why we have to balance that concern with voter fraud and any nefarious acts that others might want to take on, or to try to instigate, to interrupt our elections.”

They’ve asked the legislature to temporarily allow absentee ballots to contain only one witness signature, rather than two, to limit the exposure an individual is subject to in order to vote. In particular, she said, this is important for the elderly or other vulnerable populations who most need to isolate.

Still, she said, their investigations and compliance teams as well as local elections officials will still be actively monitoring to look for any red flags or suspicious patterns — the numbers will just be on a much larger scale.

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