Rachel Hunt was sworn in as a member of the N.C. House on Wednesday, with a cloud hanging over her not of her own making. She earned the seat, and House leaders were right not to deprive her of it. But a challenge to her victory raises larger questions that go to the heart of voters having trust in North Carolina’s elections and that need to be addressed.
Hunt, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, knocked off incumbent Republican Bill Brawley by a mere 68 votes out of 38,000 cast in November. That caught the attention of the North Carolina Values Coalition, a conservative advocacy group. It had a sister organization, the Institute for Faith & Family, comb through absentee mail-in ballots in Hunt’s district, House 103.
The group found more than 300 cases in which there was a discrepancy between the date the voter signed the ballot envelope and the date the witness to that vote did. That, the Values Coalition argued, suggests possible fraud and should have blocked Hunt from being seated.
One problem with that: State law does not require that the dates match. In fact, state law does not mention witnesses dating their signatures on absentee ballots. And the state board of elections had suggested to county boards last April that they not throw out a ballot just because the voter and witness dates differed. Given all that, the Mecklenburg board hand-inspected absentee ballots after Election Day, including the 300 in question, and approved them. The county board and the state board certified the results, making Hunt the legitimate winner.
Still, the whole episode suggests some changes are needed. Witnesses weren’t asked to date their signatures on absentee ballots until 2018. The state board of elections initiated that practice after the 2016 election as a tool to help identify voter fraud. After all, though it’s not illegal, a discrepancy between the voter and witness dates does raise questions about whether the vote was actually witnessed.
State elections officials say that date discrepancies may be fodder for an investigation. Yet at the same time, they emphasize to county boards not to pay such discrepancies much mind.
And so the Mecklenburg Board of Elections didn’t, and isn’t. Were the questionable absentee ballots only in Hunt’s House 103, or were there similar ballots in races across the county and state? Were there one or two witnesses signing the ballots in question, or many? Were these ballots mostly from voters of one party or the other?
Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson can’t say, because he hasn’t inspected the 300 ballots to look for patterns. He told the Observer editorial board Wednesday he’s happy to do so if the state or his board want him to.
By themselves, the differing dates found by the Values Coalition hardly suggest the House 103 results are tainted. It’s unlikely they are. But many voters at least want to know that nothing’s being swept under the rug. A state board spokesman said that office has opened an investigation into the ballots the Values Coalition flagged. That’s good; a closer look would be valuable, as would more consistent and precise guidance from the state.