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Vote-by-mail scandal in North Carolina exposes Florida’s lax laws

Florida used to prohibit collecting ballots and used to require a witness signature. But the state's Republican-led Legislature did away with the laws years ago.

A contested election. Accusations of election fraud. Widespread attention from the national media.

No, it's not in Florida, which has had its fair share of election hijinks over the decades.

It's in North Carolina, where a Congressional race might get a rare election do-over after allegations surfaced that a political operative helped the Republican candidate win by illegally collecting absentee, or vote-by-mail, ballots.

The case highlights a notable difference between the two states, however: North Carolina has much tougher laws than Florida when it comes to voting by mail.

Although Florida, like many states, has imposed strong voter ID laws for casting a ballot at a polling place, it's done virtually nothing to stop fraud in the vote-by-mail process.

Most everywhere in Florida, it's not illegal to collect ballots, like it is in North Carolina, where it's a felony. Rather, it's only illegal to pay someone to collect ballots in Florida, a loophole that allows campaign volunteers and even candidates themselves to go door to door collecting voters' ballots.

(One exception is in Miami-Dade County, which has its own county code limiting anyone from possessing more than two ballots at a time.)

Another safeguard, requiring the signature of a witness, such a family member, on the vote by mail ballot envelope, is not required in Florida. In North Carolina, it is.

Florida used to have both protections, but Florida's Republican-led Legislature stripped them away.

In 1998, after Miami was rocked by absentee voting scandals that uncovered a vast network of people collecting and filling out mail-in ballots, lawmakers in Tallahassee outlawed non-election workers from possessing of two or more of them.

But three years later, lawmakers repealed it.

In the 1990s, two witness signatures were required on absentee ballot envelopes in Florida. But in 1997, it was reduced to one signature, and in 2004, lawmakers eliminated the requirement entirely.

In 2012, following another round of absentee ballot fraud in Miami, a Miami-Dade grand jury recommended bringing back both laws.

The witness requirement, for example, makes it easier for police to track potential fraud, the grand jury said. That's also what happened In North Carolina, where investigators found that the witnesses on hundreds of ballots came from the political operative and his associates.

But lawmakers in Florida didn't budge.

One former Palm Beach County commissioner said the situation in North Carolina is similar to her own two years ago, when voters there complained that two a state House candidate and a county commission candidate were going around helping people vote and collecting their ballots.

In both races, an unusually high return in vote by mail ballots helped the candidates win.

An investigation by the Palm Beach Post found the two Democrats did go into people's homes, and some voters said the candidates had actually signed their ballots, which is illegal.

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, a fellow Democrat, assembled a task force to investigate the claims. They found fraud, but no suspect, and agents didn't follow up on the allegations uncovered by the Post. Charges were never filed against the lawmakers, who are still in office.

Priscilla Taylor, who was on the losing end of the commission race, told the Times/Herald the laws need to be strengthened. She's now running for mayor of West Palm Beach.

"It is certainly a serious issue that needs to be addressed," Taylor told the Times/Herald over the weekend. "Stealing elections should not be tolerated on any level."