RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
An update now on the probe into election fraud in North Carolina's Ninth Congressional District. Investigators for the North Carolina State Board of Elections have officially named Leslie McCrae Dowless as a person of interest. Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by just over 900 votes in the unofficial vote tally, but the election still hasn't been certified, and mail-in ballots are at the center of all of this. NPR's Miles Parks has been covering this story, and he joins us now in studio. Hey, Miles.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi there.
MARTIN: Who is Leslie McCrae Dowless?
PARKS: So he is somebody who was being paid by Republican Mark Harris via a consulting firm. This investigation is really focused on what went on in Robeson County and Bladen County, which are on the east part of the Ninth district. Republican Mark Harris really outperformed there, specifically in vote-by-mail ballots compared to the number of ballots that were turned in by registered Republicans. Voters have alleged that Dowless went out and actually gathered people's ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina, and that has people questioning whether those ballots were all turned in or whether they were manipulated in some way. Basically, the State Board of Elections is looking into whether there are enough questions here to actually doubt the integrity of the election and potentially call for a whole new election in the Ninth District.
MARTIN: Wow. I mean, leading up to this election, Miles, we talked about how fraud almost never happens. It's very rare. But now we're talking about a congressional race potentially hanging on the balance because of this.
PARKS: So in-person voter fraud is what we've been talking about never ever happens. This is the kind of fraud that President Donald Trump, for instance, talks about - somebody changed their hat to be able to vote twice. But absentee ballot fraud, mail-in ballot fraud, does occasionally happen. I talked to Charles Stewart, who's an election expert at MIT, about this.
CHARLES STEWART: The consensus is among people who study fraud carefully is that voting by mail is a much more fertile area for fraud than voting in person.
PARKS: What's interesting, though, is that we're actually seeing vote-by-mail increase across the country. The percent of people nationally who voted by mail in the 2016 presidential election had actually tripled compared to just two decades prior.
MARTIN: Because it's super convenient, right?
MARTIN: I mean, if you've been and you've waited in those long lines sometimes.
PARKS: There are so many benefits here. You mentioned the long lines. There's also the fact that you have weeks to fill out your ballot with your resources handy in the comfort of your own home. Most reach - excuse me. Most research says that it does increase turnout, especially in low-profile, nonpresidential elections. Stewart told me that overall, basically, there's this trend going on toward making voting easier and accessible for people. And the amount of fraud we're talking about when we talk about vote-by-mail fraud is still minuscule compared to the amount of ballots that are cast even, say, over the last decade.
MARTIN: But still, now that we've got this North Carolina case, I imagine some state election officials out there across the country are perhaps rethinking the accessibility to mail-in ballots?
PARKS: The experts I talked to are really worried about that possibility, that election security hawks are basically going to use what's happening in North Carolina as a way to clamp down on vote-by-mail ballots. But, like you said, voters really like this practice. In every state where they've allowed people to do it more often, people do it more often to the point where three states are actually vote-by-mail completely. People can vote in person if they choose, but every single registered voter in Washington, Oregon and Colorado actually receives a mail-in ballot. So I talked to election directors in those states who basically said they want to use North Carolina as an excuse to secure the system, to educate voters, but they don't want it to clamp down on a system they see as successful.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Miles Parks, thanks. That was really helpful. We appreciate it.
PARKS: Thank you.