From illegally gerrymandered districts that dilute the power of voters to a sweeping voter suppression law that targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision,” North Carolina is no stranger to attacks on voting rights, especially for communities of color. 

Now our state is consumed by accusations of a different kind of voter suppression, amid growing evidence that hundreds, if not thousands, of absentee ballots were illegally tampered with in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

While officials, journalists, and the public are still working to get to the bottom of what exactly happened in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, one thing is clear: The illegal activity being alleged is not voter fraud. It is election tampering. A photo ID law would have done nothing to prevent it.

At the center of the investigation is Leslie McCrae Dowless, a political operative working for the campaign of Republican Mark Harris, who appeared to beat his Democratic opponent in the general election, Dan McCready, by just 905 votes. That is until irregularities surfaced in the absentee ballot returns in Bladen County, a rural part of eastern North Carolina where many people are still working to rebuild their lives after recent hurricanes. Election observers noticed an unusually large amount of requests for mail-in ballots, with a large portion of them never being returned. They also noticed high numbers of absentee ballots being hand-delivered to the county board of elections in large batches all at once. Harris, the Republican candidate, won 61 percent of Bladen County’s absentee votes, even though only 19 percent of the voters who requested absentee ballots were Republican.

At least two people have since told reporters that Dowless paid them to go door-to-door to pick up hundreds of absentee ballots and bring them to Harris’ campaign headquarters. Many voters have come forward saying that someone did indeed come to their home to pick up their completed absentee ballot, often unsealed, and offered to turn it in for them. Under North Carolina law, it is illegal for anyone else besides the voter or their “near relative” to pick up or deliver an absentee ballot.

There is also evidence that voters of color may have been targeted. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, “more than 40 percent of the ballots requested by African Americans and more than 60 percent of those requested by American Indians did not make it back to elections officials. For white voters, that figure was just 17 percent.”

The 9th District irregularities came to light as the lame-duck General Assembly was busy rushing to pass details of a new requirement for North Carolina voters to show certain forms of photo ID before casting an in-person ballot, which some lawmakers have argued, without evidence, is needed to prevent “voter fraud.” The ACLU of North Carolina is urging Gov. Roy Cooper to veto the bill because we know these laws, like the last North Carolina photo ID law that was struck down by courts, have been used to suppress the vote, particularly for people of color. 

The bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has voted unanimously to not certify the 9th District election results. It is now conducting an investigation, and many are calling for a new election. If the state board concludes that ballots were illegally tampered with, the people at fault would be campaign workers, not the voters.

That is not voter fraud. It’s illegal voter suppression.

As officials investigate exactly what happened in the 9th District, one thing is clear: Voters are the victims, not the people at fault. We cannot let election tampering by campaign workers be used as an excuse to make it harder for voters to cast a ballot that counts.