News: CJ Exclusives

Elections board recommends tougher penalties for election crimes

Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the State Board of Elections, during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. (News & Observer pool photo)
Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the State Board of Elections, during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. (News & Observer pool photo)

The top official at the State Board of Elections wants tougher punishment for election crimes, suggesting special prosecutors should be appointed if district attorneys or federal authorities refuse to investigate wrongdoing.

The board’s Executive Director Kim Strach delivered what she called a menu of vital reforms to tackle election corruption Wednesday, March 13, to the House Elections and Ethics Law Committee. Legislation passed last year directed the board recommend methods to improve absentee voting security after widespread fraud was detected in the 2016 and 2018 election cycles.

Strach said more money was needed to expand the elections board’s investigative staff to combat election fraud better, and catch it earlier.

Committee Co-Chairman Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, told Strach he regularly hears from constituents who don’t think the elections board vigorously investigates election fraud.

The elections board doesn’t have criminal investigation powers, and can’t force prosecutors to launch probes. Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Washington, D.C-based Heritage Foundation, has been a critic of local elections officials and law enforcement agencies’ reluctance to investigate election crimes.

“We have certainly been frustrated ourselves at times,” Strach said. Although the elections board made referrals in 2016 to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina, she said there was scant evidence it was investigating potential crimes.

Strach suggested the General Assembly consider a law that allows a special prosecutor to be appointed and look into violations if existing authorities fail to do their job.

“We need strong consequences for election interference,” Strach said, saying they would deter crimes. Currently only two absentee voting crimes are felonies. Most are misdemeanors.

Strach said the U.S. Department of Justice Public Integrity Section is finally taking North Carolina corruption seriously. It opened an investigation and issued grand jury subpoenas involving the 2018 9th U.S. Congressional District election.

Leslie McCrae Dowless, the alleged ringleader of an absentee by-mail ballot harvesting operation in Bladen and Robeson counties in 2016 and 2018, and four co-conspirators have been charged after a Wake County grand jury handed up indictments in a state investigation. A fifth co-conspirator was not indicted. The investigation continues.

Dowless worked for the Rev. Mark Harris, a Republican who unofficially won election to the 9th U.S. Congressional District in November. He called for a new election during an elections board hearing after evidence and testimony demonstrated sufficient fraud to cast the integrity of the election into doubt. Harris denied knowledge of the wrongdoing, and cited ill health for bowing out of the new election.

Among her recommendations, Strach said:

•  Prepay postage on absentee ballot envelopes. Some voters don’t want to pay postage, and some don’t have the desire or the means to buy stamps. These voters are more willing to let a third party unlawfully collect their ballots, and could enable vote harvesting operations.

• Third parties shouldn’t be allowed to make copies of absentee ballot request forms they collect from voters. That’s the law for voter registration drives.

• Use a unique absentee ballot request form for every election. Third parties then couldn’t have a voter sign a form and use photocopies of it in succeeding elections. This change could prevent fraud and stop ballots from being sent to voters who no longer lived at the address on file with election authorities.

• Third parties that collect absentee ballot request forms should be paid hourly, not per form gathered, because that encourages fraud. This was one of the methods Dowless’ associates testified he used to amass absentee ballot request forms in sparsely populated counties. The restriction is in place for voter registration.

• The law must ensure timely third party submission of absentee ballot request forms or else voters risk losing their right to cast a ballot. Penalties should be imposed for violations.

• Clarify the law requiring a copy of photo identification for absentee voting. Photo ID should be required only when a voter or near relative submits the voter’s ballot, and has control over their personal and private information. Anyone can submit an absentee ballot request form. Easy access to photo ID copies could lead to misuse, loss, or identity theft.

• Require county boards of elections to keep a log when absentee ballot forms are requested, and when absentee ballots are brought in.