Charges of impropriety in the handling of absentee ballots have held up certification of a close election in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District for nearly a month. As North Carolina election officials work to resolve the matter, the disputed election should also be closely scrutinized by officials in South Carolina, where absentee voting has sharply increased in recent elections.
In the 9th District, the Republican candidate has a 905-vote lead over his Democratic opponent, but the North Carolina Board of Elections has refused to certify the results because of charges of ballot fraud. An investigation is ongoing in Bladen County, one of six counties in the congressional district along the South Carolina border.
There is even talk of having the election results tossed out and a new election ordered. That presumably would require clear evidence that the alleged shenanigans actually changed the course of the election -- a standard of proof that is usually difficult to meet.
According to the complaint, campaign workers enlisted by a contractor for a Republican election consultant went door to door urging Bladen County residents to vote absentee. Ballots were reportedly collected by GOP campaign workers but not all were mailed in, the presumption being that those cast for the GOP candidate were more likely to have been counted. Under law, only the voter or a close relation is allowed to send in mail-in ballots.
The North Carolina elections board refused to certify the election because of "claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent ties related to mail ballots," according to a board spokesman.
Nothing similar has been reported in South Carolina, but the phenomenal growth of absentee balloting in this state should encourage election officials to keep a close eye on potential problems. Some 230,000 absentee ballots were cast in the recent midterm election, or about 12 percent of the total vote. Absentee voting is allowed for several specific reasons. It is designed to accommodate voters who, for example, won't be in the state on Election Day. It is clearly being used, however, as a substitute for early voting, which is unavailable in South Carolina.
If the absentee voting process is open to abuse, state officials need to know about it. If early voting is a better option for election security, the Legislature should consider allowing it.
And Republicans who are seeking to enact stricter laws ensuring election security should be certain that their own house is cleaned up in the process.