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North Carolina Lawmakers Split On Absentee Ballot Rules After 2018 Election Scandal

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

With three weeks until Election Day, many states are still fighting over changes to voting by mail, changes driven by the pandemic. In North Carolina, that debate follows one of the country's biggest election scandals - alleged mail ballot fraud in a congressional race two years ago. Steve Harrison of member station WFAE has more.

STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: Two years ago, a political operative working for a Republican congressional candidate was accused of illegally collecting, or harvesting, mail ballots. In some cases, blank ballots were allegedly filled in by someone else. Attorney Marc Elias represented the losing Democratic candidate Dan McCready.

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MARC ELIAS: And this is the largest, most extensive example of election fraud that I've ever been involved in and, frankly, that I am aware of in our country in the last quarter century.

HARRISON: Less than two years later, Elias is litigating election cases across the country as the Democrats' premier voting rights attorney. And he's back in North Carolina trying to undo some of the reforms the Legislature enacted after the scandal. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Elias tried to get the state to temporarily remove the requirement that ballots have a witness signature. Democrats have also sought to let other people collect absentee ballots and application forms for submission. Over the summer, lawmakers here struck a bipartisan deal to only require one witness signature instead of two. Republicans say Democrats and Elias in particular are being hypocritical.

PHIL BERGER: Was he serious when he brought an action in 2018 to say that North Carolina's laws basically fostered the fraudulent collection and counting of absentee ballots...

HARRISON: That's the state's top Republican, Senate leader Phil Berger.

BERGER: ...Or is he serious now when he's pushing a resolution to this lawsuit and has been pushing multiple lawsuits that actually make that sort of fraud more likely?

HARRISON: Elias declined to be interviewed for this story. All of this is taking place in a state that could be key as to who wins the presidency and controls the Senate. It's the latest fight in North Carolina over voting rights, which has included a contested photo ID law and some of the most gerrymandered maps in the country. This fight comes nearly a month after ballots started going out in the mail. So far, 11,000 mail ballots have problems, such as not having a witness signature. African Americans have had more issues with their mail ballots than whites, an issue seen in other states.

Barack Obama won North Carolina in 2008 by just 14,000 votes. President Trump has been making unsubstantiated claims about fraud and mail voting across the nation for weeks. But when he's traveled to North Carolina, he's brought up the 2018 scandal.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They wanted to put a Republican - fine man, a pastor - they wanted to put him in jail because he harvested. Now they want to make harvesting legal all of a sudden.

HARRISON: Democrats say this year's fight over mail ballots is the latest effort by Republicans this decade to suppress turnout. Natasha Marcus is a Democratic state senator.

NATASHA MARCUS: It is shameful the way North Carolina Republicans are trying to manufacture a controversy here, and they're interfering in - and sowing seeds of distrust in an election that hasn't even happened yet because they're afraid they're going to lose.

HARRISON: The two Republican members on the state board of elections voted last month for a legal settlement with one of the lawsuits but then resigned because they said they didn't understand its full implications. The settlement would allow for more time to count late-arriving ballots. It would also let voters fix ballots with administrative errors, such as a missing witness signature, instead of having to cast a new mail ballot. Marcus says letting voters fix the problems is a commonsense way to make sure votes are counted.

MARCUS: People have a right to vote. They've done their best to try and fill it out. That form is confusing. You know, whether your neighbor signs on the right line or not shouldn't determine whether you have a right to have your vote counted.

HARRISON: Federal judge recently issued a temporary restraining order stopping the proposed settlement, saying it violated state law requiring at least one witness signature.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Harrison in Charlotte.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.