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Goose the Vote

May 1, 2020 (Raleigh) In her closing argument for a panic-driven election law reform, NC State Board of Elections (NC SBE) Executive Director, Karen Brinson Bell, urged the state legislature to enact a slate of measures that would make it harder than ever to conduct open and honest elections in North Carolina.

NCSBE Director Karen Bell

While there were four main thrusts to Bell’s agenda, the two primary efforts would have had the effect of either dramatically increasing the volume of absentee ballots in county offices or they would further weaken the law designed to prevent absentee ballot harvesting and nursing home voting abuses.

We completed our analysis and socialized it with lawmakers earlier this week, but here are the keys to interpreting their lobbying missive.

Bell’s April 22 letter to lawmakers, reviewed the financial impact each of their panic reform, focusing on the availability of $10,897,295 in CARES Act funding that would target any election problems created by the Coronavirus pandemic.

The federal money comes with a catch: The NCGA must pick up the tab for 20% of any amount they want, in order to unleash the money tree from Washington.

In summary, the letter can be broken into these four policy goals: Increase the demand for absentee voting, accomodating said increased demand, spend as much money as possible, and encourage cheating. Details are below, but that’s the short description.

  1. Increase the demand for absentee voting.
    1. Establish a fund to pay for postage for returned absentee ballots. While those oversized envelopes can cost more than a dollar to mail, using CARES Act money for this would be a stretch.
    2. Expand options for absentee requests was code for allowing voters to request absentee ballots without creating a “wet signature” on a piece of paper. Forensics examiners consider digitized wet signatures as the gold standard in fraud mitigation. Thus, Bell wants to get rid of them.
    3. Establish online portal for absentee requests. This measure even came with a helpful price tag ($398,000 per year, plus a $25,950 “configuration fee”). As we will see later, Bell was not has helpful with pricing information on fraud-prevention software.
  2. Accommodate the increased ballots that the above measure would generate.
    1. Temporarily suspend purchase and contract requirements for elections-related supplies and other items. Other than for items like face masks and hand sanitizer, we see no reason to change the procurement rules for election-related material. After all, kinda like Christmas, all of the vendors understand that the elections are coming.
    2. Modify procedure for counting of ballots on Election Day.* Instead of counting all absentee ballots received by 5 PM on Election Day, this change would move that deadline to the Saturday prior to Election Day. All other ballots would be counted in time for the canvass, ten days later. They also suggested moving the canvass date to 14 days after the election. The impact of these changes is that more absentee ballots could sit mysteriously in election offices for days before being counted.
    3. Clarify authorization for telephonic meetings.* Ok, sure. Why not clarify the law when needed? There seems to be a disagreement between the state agency and the UNC School of Government interpretation on this, so a modified law could clear it up. Ok. Why not?
  3.   Since we’re being offered “free money” from the Feds . . . well, let’s spend it!
    1. Grab the loot. There’s a cool $10,897,295 of CARES Act money just sitting there, but the NCGA must agree to provide the State match requirement of 20%, or $2,179,459. There’s an additional pot of money, called “HAVA funds,” that her agency is also requesting.
    2. Increase pay for poll workers.* They currently get the state’s minimum wage and counties have a hard time recruiting workers for this civic duty. We offer an alternative response here: Let’s not get into a bidding war with the private sector for this seasonal part-time job. Instead, why not dedicate funding to statewide recruitment advertising? Currently, many counties use temp hiring agencies for those jobs and it doesn’t always work out very well.
    3. Make Election Day a holiday.* As we wrote before, we could go for this one . . . but with a few conditions: First, we should entirely eliminate early voting or “absentee one-stop” voting. Second, we should return only allowing absentee ballots that are notarized. and third, require all voters dip one of their fingers in ink. Only under those three conditions, would an Election Day holiday make sense. (If you scoff at these measures, we return an equal scoff at yours.)
  4. Encourage Cheating. Oh, sure. They justify their reforms in the name of “increasing turnout,” but give no consideration whatsoever to the security measures their reforms would be abandoning.
    1. Temporarily modify restrictions on assistance in care facilities. It’s already pretty easy for activists to go “granny farming” at nursing homes, but Bell wants it to be easier.
    2. Eliminate requirement that a majority of poll workers reside in the precinct. NO way! Remember that bit we mentioned about increasing statewide recruitment efforts? This slippery slope is the result of our not doing that. California has already shown us the multi-step approach to giving away your elections and we’ve covered it elsewhere on our site, but here’s the nut: First, do little recruiting. Second, complain that nobody wants the job. Third, beg the state to loosen the residency requirements. Fourth, complain some more. Fifth, loosen the citizenship requirements. Sixth, staff precincts with non-US citizens. You may think that the sixth step is preposterous, but our California counterparts have learned otherwise.
    3. Expand student poll worker program. We reviewed this provision in our earlier analysis, but Bell’s most rediculous suggestion involved allowing the students to be chosen without the approval of the Principal and another suggestion to let the 16- and 17-year-old children serve as Chief Judges. We agree with expanding the age requirement from 17-only, to 16-17, but nothing else.
    4. Modify one-stop site and hour requirements. Meaning return to the good old days (like 2012) when the Democrat-controlled Wake BOE offered 17 days of early voting in six heavily Democrat neighborhoods and (initially) only one early voting site in Cary (NC’s 7th largest city) with only 10 days of early voting.
    5. Reduce or eliminate the witness requirement for absentee ballots. See earlier reference to increasing the ease of voting with no regard for the accompanying increase in fraudulent voting.
    6. Allow a voter to use a HAVA document instead of having to bother with those pesky numbers that DMV gives all lawful drivers and ID card holders or that annoying last four digits of their Social Security numbers (SSN4). Rather than ranting about how easy it is to create a fake HAVA document, I’ll refer you to an article by the leader of our Virginia counterpart, Reagan George, and move on to the other question this idea raises: Let’s see . . . what voter out there would not have one of those numbers within reach?
  5. What Bell did not request is more revealing than what she did. Yes, she offered lots of helpful information about the cost of her favorite shiny objects. She gave lawmakers price estimates for the postage-paid absentee voting and for on-line absentee ballot request portal. But there was one thing she forgot: How are election officials supposed to handle all of these increased ballots?

Why didn’t Bell provide price info on mitigating absentee ballot fraud?

Here’s something most of us probably have never considered: Banks use optical scanning software to analyze signatures in their transactions. In fact, that type of analysis is so well-established that some companies are starting to offer it for fraud prevention in elections and this gives us some level of hope that things are going in the right direction.

But wait. Director Ball was appointed by Roy Cooper.

So, instead of offering price information about this established technology, she offered it as something “that would be carried out beyond the 2020 general election.”

Excerpt from NCSBE’s April 22 memo to NCGA.

Why wait for after the election?

After a total of around six hours of research, we learned lots of things about this technology and the price tag. The only price estimate we got was “somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000 per machine. They only recommend buying it in counties with more than 100,000 registered voters. In NC, that translates to 20 counties, plus two more that have between 90,000 and 100,000 voters. So the top-end price would be $6,600,000 for 22 counties.

One of the industry leaders in this type of forensic analysis, Parascript, makes their profit by licensing out the software they developed. As of this writing, they have an arrangement with four companies licensed to sell election equipment. Their website included a whitepaper (click here) on automatic-signature-verification.

As this Covid “crisis” continues to play out, we see an unsettling pattern emerging. The current administration is promoting anything that makes it easier to cheat in elections, while they save any measures that mitigate voter fraud for later. North Carolina deserves better.

 

State Board CARES Act request and legislative recommendations update