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A bill would require disclosing the use of A.I. in North Carolina political ads

Voters vote at East Chapel Hill High School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on 2022 mid-terms election day.
Cornell Watson
/
For WUNC
Voters vote at East Chapel Hill High School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on 2022 mid-terms election day.

Republicans in the state senate have pushed forward legislation aimed at bolstering election integrity in North Carolina, but critics say it might create more problems than solutions.

A bill discussed today by the Senate Committee on Redistricting and Elections would require counties to root out votes cast by registrants who, after casting early or absentee ballots, subsequently died or were convicted of a felony, something that rarely occurs.

The legislation also would require the implementation of signature verification for absentee ballots starting next year, even though a pilot of the program that was supposed to be conducted in this year's primaries is way behind schedule and has yet to produce results.

"And this will increase the integrity within the system and should boost the confidence of North Carolina voters," said committee co-chair, state Sen. Warren Daniel., R-Buncombe, Burke, McDowell.

Cases of individual voter fraud happen so rarely as to be statistically insignificant. Former Pres. Donald Trump continues to use false claims of voter fraud during his current campaign, seemingly to undermine confidence in everything from early voting to absentee-by-mail ballots.

Bill sponsors worried about voters who die, get convicted of a felony after casting their ballots

The North Carolina State Board of Elections has already instructed counties to be on the lookout for the rare cases where a registered voter might have cast an early or absentee ballot and then subsequently dies or gets convicted of a felony. In a 2022 guidance memo to county elections directors, the state board instructed them on how to properly challenge a voter's eligibility under state law.

If a voter dies after voting absentee-by-mail or by casting an early vote, county elections officials must confirm the death with DHHS records, a death certificate or a signed notice from a near relative. And in the case of a voter getting convicted after casting their absentee or early voting ballot, the county elections board would have to contact the state board's investigations division and give the voter a 30-day removal notice as state law provides.

Under the legislation advanced in committee Thursday, prior to the third day before the canvass meeting where final vote tallies are conducted, county boards shall scour official records of state residents who died or were convicted of a felony and compare them to the list of voters who cast early or absentee ballots.

From 2016 through 2022, in North Carolina presidential and mid-term election years, there were 155 total referrals of cases of alleged fraudulent voting out of more than 17,800,000 votes cast over that same period, less than .001%, according to data compiled and analyzed by Prof. Michael Bitzer, who chairs the politics department at Catawba College.

In 2022, there were 12 referrals for alleged cases of double voting, votes cast by a convicted felon and, in one case, voter impersonation. That's out of more than 3.7 million votes that year.

In public comment prior to the committee vote, Ann Webb, policy director of the government watchdog group Common Cause North Carolina, expressed concerns that the legislation could unfairly sweep up wrongfully identified voters.

"I think there's some questions there about whether there would be sufficient time in that three-day period to give notice and due process to folks whose ballots might be pulled as a result of that process," Webb warned the committee.

Republicans want signature verification required statewide next year despite delays in this year's pilot program

Webb also urged legislators to slow down on another provision in the bill, a requirement that signature verification software be put to use statewide starting next year.

GOP-backed legislation had already put in place a 10-county-wide pilot for signature verification that was to be tested on absentee-by-mail ballots cast in this year's primaries. However, the state elections board was unable to find a vendor that could meet the state's needs until recently. The 10 counties in the pilot could start running primary ballots through the signature verification software this week, well behind the original schedule.

The proposed legislation would extend the 10-county pilot to include this fall's general election and put the full, statewide signature verification requirement in place next year.

State Sen. Dan Blue, the Democratic leader, told his fellow committee members that prospect concerned him because people's signatures change over time.

"I'm not sure it's the wisest to elevate a machine's knowledge and wisdom over that of human beings who see what's happening in real time and know the person that they've identified," Blue added.

And Ann Webb of Common Cause told lawmakers she thought it was premature to legislate a start date for the full signature verification requirement before a pilot was even complete.

"I think it's very possible that this is the bold new frontier and that this is a direction that our state may choose to go," Webb said in her remarks to the committee. "But I do think that going through the pilot program first would help us prevent, kind of, our ship crashing and burning in 2025."

Webb did praise lawmakers for addressing another concern for voters and elections integrity: the use of artificial intelligence, or AI, in political ads and messages.

A provision of the bill requires the sponsor of any political ad in print, on radio or television to disclose the use of AI when it is used to depict a real person doing something that did not actually occur or otherwise provides false or misleading information to voters. The bill further requires that such an ad include the statement: "The content in this advertisement has been edited or created in whole or in part with the use of generative artificial intelligence (AI)."

In a party-line vote, with Republicans in the majority, the committee gave the bill a favorable recommendation and moved it on to the Rules committee.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.