Aha! NC voter fraud does exist. (Just not the kind you think)

A sign tells voters a photo ID is not required as hundreds  come out on the first day of early voting at the Hope Mills Recreation Center in Hope Mills on Oct. 20, 2016.
A sign tells voters a photo ID is not required as hundreds come out on the first day of early voting at the Hope Mills Recreation Center in Hope Mills on Oct. 20, 2016. The News & Observer

As news continues to break about possible voter fraud in North Carolina’s 9th District congressional election, we’re seeing emails and comments with a similar theme:

Aha! Voter fraud! Don’t voter ID opponents (and you, the Observer editorial board) say that fraud is almost non-existent?

No, we don’t say that. But the voter fraud that exists is the one Republicans in Raleigh don’t much want to talk about.

First, what we’ve said: Voter ID laws primarily deal with protecting elections from in-person voter fraud, meaning someone going to a precinct and attempting to vote as someone else. That kind of voter fraud is rare — in 2016, the state Board of Elections found that 4,769,640 votes were cast in November and that one (1) would probably have been avoided with a voter ID law.

What may have happened in the 9th District — and specifically Bladen County — is a different kind of fraud. There, according to two editorial board sources, the board of elections is investigating whether an individual gained access to absentee ballots for the November election, perhaps through voters who requested them from the county or state. Those ballots were filled out for Mark Harris, who defeated Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. The number of absentee ballots cast in Bladen was less than Harris’ overall margin of victory.

Sources say that same individual was investigated two years ago for similar allegations, and as WFAE’s Steve Harrison reports, Harris won a startling 96 percent of the Bladen absentee vote in his 2018 primary victory over then incumbent Robert Pittenger. There are several questions to be answered about what happened there, including whether the Harris campaign knew of the work potentially being done on its behalf.

This much we do know about absentee voter fraud: Experts say it’s a far easier and more frequent way to compromise the integrity of elections. One exhaustive study of 12 years of elections in five states found only 10 cases of alleged voter impersonation, but 491 prosecutions for absentee ballot fraud. That’s also not a terribly large number given the hundreds of millions of votes cast in that time period, but it does show that if lawmakers want to attack voter fraud, they’re aiming at the wrong kind.

That’s true this week in North Carolina, where legislators are crafting the photo ID bill that voters tasked them with when they approved a constitutional amendment earlier this month. This editorial board called for that bill to allow for a wider range of student IDs, as well as exceptions for those who face obstacles to getting a photo ID. But regardless of how easy Republicans make it to get an ID — and some would prefer to make it harder — there still will be far more voters who will be blocked from casting a ballot than those who might commit in-person voter fraud.

Lawmakers could take more steps to protect against absentee ballot fraud, including coordinating voter databases between states to stop those who move from voting twice, which experts say is the most common type of voter fraud. A photo ID wouldn’t have stopped that, nor would it stop what may have happened in Bladen. What voter IDs prevent most are legitimate votes.