Tracking and other measures implemented in recent years should prevent repeat of ballot-harvesting exposed during 2018 election cycle.

Worried about voting by mail? Or that North Carolina’s by-mail voting system is ripe for fraud? Don’t be.

All over the state, election workers are doing what Lori Huskins did Monday in the Mitchell County elections office: methodically scanning the unique bar code on each ballot envelope delivered that morning. With each envelope Huskins scanned, the voter’s name, identifying information and signature popped up on her computer screen.

Next, Huskins examined each envelope to see that the voter had signed it and that a witness had attested that the voter, not someone else, had filled in the ballot. If all was in order, she chose “accepted” as the ballot status from a drop-down menu on her screen. From that instant, the N.C. State Board of Elections database — which, once in-person voting starts, will be connected to every polling place in the state — reflected that that individual had voted.

Huskins’ boss, Elections Director Roycene Jones, said she has never known anyone to try to vote twice in the five years she has headed the Mitchell County office.

“If they did, we would catch it immediately,” she said.

On Tuesday evening, the five members of Mitchell County’s Board of Elections, like every board throughout the state, began the process of officially approving the ballots. Working in teams of two – one Republican, one Democrat – they confirmed that the staff had correctly accepted 449 ballots and flagged 14 as somehow deficient and requiring a “cure.”

They extracted the accepted ballots from their envelopes, then manually counted both the ballots and the envelopes to be sure their tally matched the staff’s. Finally, they traipsed down from the second-floor courtroom to the elections office and fed the ballots one by one into an optical scan voting machine, the kind that voters use in polling places in 93 of the state’s 100 counties.

As the vote scanning dragged on, interrupted by the occasional paper jam, they reminisced about elections past and traded little election insider jokes. It was a scene both solemn and collegial, a poignant counterpoint to the trench warfare that dominates the parties’ interactions in Raleigh and Washington.

As the final ballot was fed into the tabulator, the clock read close to 8, and the readout on the tabulator screen said 449. On a form provided by the state, the election workers recorded the starting count (0), ending count (449) and the difference between the two (449). Finally, Jones and each board member added their initials.

Until Election Day, only the machine will know how many votes each candidate has received. By law, the board won’t extract that information until the afternoon of Nov. 3 and won’t report it publicly until the polls close.

Mitchell has seen a threefold increase in requests for mail ballots compared to 2016, despite being a deep red county. (This year, in North Carolina and nationally, Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to opt for vote-by-mail.)

But Mitchell’s surge is nothing compared with the deluge of requests in Buncombe County, the region’s bluest. With more than three weeks before the deadline to request a mail ballot, staff members have already logged more than 46,000 requests, six times the total they got for the 2016 general election, said Buncombe Elections Director Corinne Duncan.

Duncan, who has worked for the department since 2015, assumed the director’s role in February, just before the world turned upside down. Since then, she said, she’s heard even veteran directors from the state’s largest counties confess to feeling a bit overwhelmed.

Nevertheless, she radiates confidence, insisting that unforeseen events, including rules that can change daily in response to court rulings about disputed procedures, are part and parcel of the job. “Elections administrators are emergency specialists,” she says.

On Wednesday afternoon, the office hummed with activity, but the atmosphere was purposeful rather than chaotic. The county’s five Board of Elections members, who had worked until 10 p.m. Tuesday, were back at it, opening and scanning the initial batch of roughly 7,500 returned ballots.

They were slated to reconvene Thursday to finish the task. Next Tuesday, like every board throughout the state, they will start processing the ballots that have arrived in the interim, and the scene will recur every week until Election Day.

And on every day, the NCSBE will know precisely the number of ballots requested, the number returned, the number accepted, the number tabulated and the number flagged for a cure, as well as the identity of each individual represented by those numbers. Every element of the process has a paper trail, and at every step, staff and elections boards cross-check the numbers to make sure ballots don’t mysteriously appear or disappear.

“No, no,” Jones said, shaking her head at the very suggestion that the system is vulnerable to manipulation. “Some people believe that. That’s what’s sad.”

Protection against ballot fraud

North Carolina does have a recent history of mail-ballot hanky-panky — but of a different sort. In 2018, a team of operatives for the Republican candidate in the 9th Congressional District collected, paid for and, in some cases, tampered with the ballots of more than 1,000 voters.

The scheme failed because of anomalies in the vote tallies: The GOP candidate won by preposterous margins in some of the precincts involved. That raised red flags that something was amiss, and, after a monthslong investigation and dramatic hearings, the NCSBE ordered a new election.

Last year, the General Assembly stiffened the penalties for that kind of “ballot harvesting,” making it a felony to buy or sell a completed ballot application or ballot. It is also a felony to destroy a completed ballot in order to nullify a person’s vote or to forge a voter’s signature in order to commit fraud.

As one safeguard against ballot harvesting, elections staff logs information about anyone who returns a ballot in person, and only the voter or a close relative can legally do that.

Counties are facing an open legal question about whether ballots that are illegally returned by someone other than a close relative can still be counted. The person who returned it would be in trouble, but the voter wouldn’t have to go through a cure process to get the vote accepted. Counties are seeking clarification on this process, which is also subject of an ongoing court challenge.

Faced Tuesday night with a handful of ballots returned by people not on the official “close relative” list, Durham County’s board voted to defer a decision until it could get further guidance from the NCSBE. Mitchell County’s board accepted a vote delivered by a niece, but only after a board member said he knew the voter, who is disabled, and knew that he had no closer relatives.

The constant warnings about hypothetical fraud that have dominated recent headlines paint a different picture: of masses of people double-voting or troves of phony ballots somehow being slipped into the mix.  Those are the very scenarios the state’s real-time tracking and verification system is designed to prevent.

The addition of the bar code to the ballot envelope, which links each returned ballot to the individual who requested it, has streamlined the ballot-tracking process. It also allows voters who sign up for an online service called BallotTrax to track their ballot through the postal system in the same way they track package deliveries.

Nationwide, voter fraud is vanishingly rare, according to scholars who have combed through millions of ballots cast over multiple elections in various jurisdictions.

Those studies have estimated the incidence of fraud to be, at the worst, no more than 25 votes for each million votes cast. A Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity appointed by President Donald Trump to document instances of fraud quietly fizzled and disbanded after a few months without issuing a report or making recommendations.

Changes and disputes

In June, mindful that the coronavirus pandemic would impel many more people to vote by mail, North Carolina legislators relaxed some of the requirements for doing so. Most notably, they voted to require only one, rather than two, witnesses to the casting of each by-mail ballot.

Advocacy groups allied with the Democratic Party have sued to loosen the requirements even further.

The NCSBE incurred the wrath of GOP legislators when it approved the parameters for a settlement in one prominent lawsuit. Those issues are still in flux pending further court rulings — rulings that county elections boards and staffs will have to implement.

One matter that is under dispute before the courts is how voters can cure ballots that are in some way flawed.

What won’t change, though, is that any voter whose ballot is found to be unacceptable by the county board of elections will be contacted quickly and given a chance to either correct the error, receive a new mail ballot or have the mail ballot discarded and vote in person.

Voting by mail

Still, most North Carolina voters are vote-by-mail first-timers. So it’s not surprising that many have misgivings about how to do it or whether they can trust the results.

One thing that has confused and even upset many voters is getting multiple forms in the mail with which to request a mail ballot — forms they never requested. Many of those blanket mailings are the work of independent political groups trying to boost voting in the state.

It’s easy to think that unasked-for form is what Trump has so often railed against. But the focus of his most vehement tirades is different: states that mail out ballots — not just forms with which to request ballots — to all registered voters. In the first debate, he specifically said states, such as North Carolina, that don’t send a ballot unless the voter requests it are fine by him.

That distinction often gets lost, though, in Trump’s torrent of invective against “scams” and “fraud.”

Last week a voter from the Wake County city of Apex voiced her alarm on a CSPAN program focusing on the state’s politics. After singing the president’s praises, the woman, identified only as Rose, complained of receiving three unsolicited ballot applications. Her conclusion: “There’s still lots of work to do” to safeguard the electoral process.

Conversely, another caller to the show, identified as Anita from Cherokee, expressed her delight with voting by mail. “I think people get intimidated with just registering to vote and figuring out the ins and outs of it,” said Anita, who confided that she had just mailed her ballot — her first time ever to vote. “But it was very, very simple and very easy to do.”

One little-known fact: You can request a mail ballot even though you are not registered to vote. The local board of elections will contact you with a form, although this won’t automatically register you until you turn it in.

You can send in a registration form with your request form but the request form itself won’t get you registered. I thought it did, but it doesn’t. If you send in a form and you are not registered we will contact you with a form. This is important information as the registration deadline is this Friday.

Jones and Duncan, the election administrators, won’t hazard an opinion over which is preferable: voting in person or voting by mail. They just want people to vote — before Nov. 3, if possible, to help make Election Day run smoothly. And they want people to understand that the process is safe and the final result, once every vote is counted, will accurately reflect the will of the people.

“The only thing that will change the results,” Duncan said, “is if people don’t vote.”

This article was originally published by Carolina Public Press.