FILE - North Carolina Mark Harris

In this Feb. 21, 2019, file photo, Mark Harris, Republican candidate in North Carolina's 9th Congressional race, prepares to testify during the fourth day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh, N.C. A federal grand jury meeting in North Carolina is weighing whether to recommend criminal charges in the tainted congressional race. The grand jury is meeting Tuesday through Thursday in Raleigh to review election irregularities in the 9th Congressional District.

As North Carolina voters prepare for an election do-over in the congressional district that was left barren by election fraud, a bill moving in the statehouse aims to prevent the recurrence of absentee ballot scams.

The Senate has approved a bi-partisan bill that would revamp the absentee ballot process and upgrade the penalties for violations.

“It was a collaborative effort to try to prevent fraud,” said Republican Sen. Warren Daniel, one of the sponsors.

The legislation is a response to the dissolution of the November election of 9th Congressional District GOP candidate Mark Harris, according to Daniel. Harris’ win was thrown out by the North Carolina State Board of Elections after his campaign workers were accused and later indicted on charges they mailed in other people’s ballots. The state board has also presented their recommendations to the House Elections and Ethics Committee, who currently has the bill.

“State Board staff has been working on this important legislation with bill sponsors and legislative staff and will continue to do so as it works its way through the General Assembly,” said Patrick Gannon, spokesperson for the election board.

Any registered voter in the state can obtain an absentee ballot through a request form. The ballot has to be returned by mailed or taken back to the election board or another early-vote location. It has to be signed by the voter or a voter’s near relative or legal guardian and has to be witnessed by a notary or two authorized voters.

The bill also keeps private the voters’ names and party affiliations up until Election Day and shifts early-voting hours by an hour to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday early voting right before Election Day will also be restored.

Falsifying, forging and tampering with the election documents are criminal offenses, but lawmakers want those violations to become harsher sentences. Under the current law, violators could be sentenced to up to 12 months. The Ballot Fraud Act would lengthen the penalties to up to 25 months. It also makes it a criminal offense to sell, buy or receive compensation for absentee ballots.

The House Elections and Ethics Committee will reconvene on Wednesday with the bill on the agenda. The state elections board gave the committee its own recommendations in March, a few of which have been woven into the Senate bill. One key missing element is funding for additional oversight and investigation.

Even though absentee voting makes the state vulnerable to fraud, it is an important part of democracy, according to Kim Westbrook Strach, former executive director of the election board. 

“At the same time, absentee voting opportunities promote participation by the temporarily displaced, voters with disabilities, and those with inflexible work or travel schedules,” said Westbrook Strach.

Staff Writer

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for three years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.