LUMBERTON, N.C. — It was a triumphant moment for North Carolina Republicans in 2013 when they enacted one of the nation’s most aggressive voter-identification laws.
The measure would combat voter fraud, they argued — though, as federal courts later ruled, it would almost certainly reduce African-American Democratic turnout. At the same time, the law made it easier to obtain mail-in absentee ballots, a form of voting that Republicans used more than Democrats.
But now, with an investigation underway into potential abuse of absentee ballots in a disputed House race, North Carolina’s tangled, partisan history of voting rights and fraud is under a spotlight — and Republicans find themselves on the defensive about whether their reliance on voter identification to combat fraud focused on the wrong source of trouble.
“The history of fraud in North Carolina is mostly in absentee ballots,” said Bill Gilkeson, a former lawyer for the General Assembly who worked on election issues. “That’s where the fraud really happens, and there’s a long history.”
The recent focus on voter impersonation has overshadowed a longer-running political duel over absentee ballots and elections procedures in North Carolina. In the early 2000s, Democrats who controlled the statehouse tightened the requirements for absentee ballots, potentially starving Republicans of votes they had come to rely upon.
But in 2013, after taking control of both the Legislature and the governor’s office, Republicans approved sweeping voting legislation that imposed strict identification requirements at polling places — and eased the absentee rules once more.
Most crucially, the law allowed absentee-ballot request forms to be posted online for printing, opening the way for vast absentee-voting drives.
It is just such an effort, by a contractor paid by the Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris, that is under investigation in the state’s Ninth Congressional District. The contractor, a Charlotte-area consulting firm called Red Dome, hired a longtime state political operative, L. McCrae Dowless Jr., for a get-out-the-vote campaign.
Some of Mr. Dowless’s workers told news organizations that they mounted an aggressive absentee-ballot drive, including collecting ballots — some said to be unsealed or unsigned — from individual voters and delivered them to local election officials, an apparent violation of state law.
State investigators have issued a subpoena to Red Dome Group. Joshua Lawson, the general counsel for the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, said Wednesday that the company had accepted it through its lawyer.
Red Dome has not responded to requests for comment about the subpoena, which was not made public. Mr. Harris’s campaign has also received a subpoena.
Absentee-by-mail ballots account for only a small fraction of voting in North Carolina — a trove of not even 100,000 votes in a state that recorded about 3.8 million ballots over all in November’s election. (Early voting is also considered a form of absentee voting.)
J. Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., said that Republicans had generally dominated absentee ballots that were cast through the mail, but that Democrats had recently made inroads with a concerted strategy.
Bladen County voting records indicate that a lopsided share of ballots that were counted favored Mr. Harris, while a lopsided share of ballots that voters requested but did not turn in came from areas likely to favor his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready.
In an article published Wednesday, the online news outlet BuzzFeed quoted workers for Mr. Dowless as describing an operation funded with “wads and wads of cash.” They said employees tracked the collection of absentee ballots by party and race, and signed ballot envelopes so the voters’ actions would appear to meet the legal requirement of being witnessed by two people.
Republicans correctly noted this week that the easing of absentee ballot rules did not legalize the tactics said to have been employed in the Ninth District. (With limited exceptions, it is a felony in North Carolina for someone to collect an absentee ballot “for return to a county board of elections.”)
A spokesman for House Speaker Tim Moore, who sponsored the 2013 legislation, added that the measure also required voters to provide Social Security or drivers’ license data and to either notarize their ballots or have them signed by witnesses. He said the requirements aimed to counter security risks posed by making absentee-ballot request forms available online.
Other Republicans also rejected arguments that the party’s lawmakers should have devoted more time to absentee-ballot fraud.
“The legislation from 2013 that made absentee-ballot request forms available online brought North Carolina’s absentee-ballot process into the 21st century and in line with the majority of other states around the nation that have their request forms online,” said Bill D’Elia, a spokesman for Senator Phil Berger, the upper chamber’s most powerful Republican.
Mr. D’Elia, invoking the history of sordid allegations surrounding absentee voting in Bladen County, added that “any attempt to connect this legislation to the apparent voter fraud that occurred in Bladen County in 2016 and 2018 is absurd. Voter fraud is still illegal, and this law did nothing to change that.”
At least one outside expert suggested that was disingenuous. Legislators crafted stringent identification requirements to combat voter impersonation, but “did very little with respect to what could have been done” to protect absentee ballots, said Paul Gronke, a political science professor and director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore. For example, he said, other states verify ballot signatures and notify absentee voters when their ballots are received and counted.
“If you’re going to be consistent — if your concern is voter fraud — you should be scrutinizing and improving the absentee-ballot system, not in-person voting,” said Mr. Gronke, who was an expert witness in a lawsuit challenging the 2013 voting law. “Because in-person fraud virtually never happens.”
North Carolina voters last month approved a constitutional amendment to enshrine an identification regimen for in-person voting. On Wednesday, the state House of Representatives voted to require that absentee voters submit “additional documentation necessary to comply with the identification requirements.”
Representative David Lewis, a Republican who is the chairman of the House’s Committee on Elections and Ethics Law, said in a statement that the dispute in the Ninth District was “an embarrassment and an impediment to the integrity of our entire elections system.” The new identification rules, he said, would allow for “a smooth rollout of an improved system of verifying that votes by mail are in fact cast by folks who asked for and have been sent the ballot.”
The House is expected to hold a final vote on the measure on Thursday.
Former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who presided over North Carolina during recent battles over voting rights, said in an interview on Wednesday that the state needed to address risks in both in-person and absentee voting.
“Even though it’s been favorable to Republicans in past years, I think reforms need to be made in absentee voting in addition to in-person,” he said. Mr. McCrory was narrowly defeated in 2016, and his campaign raised questions about absentee-ballot fraud in some counties.
Mr. McCrory went as far as to suggest that North Carolina eliminate absentee voting by mail except for members of the military and, perhaps, people with serious medical conditions.
“The rationale for absentee voting is very limited, and yet the opportunities for fraud are rampant,” Mr. McCrory said. “When you’ve got millions of dollars being spent on campaigns, the potential for fraud increases, both for small and big races.”
Mr. Dowless, the political operative whose absentee ballot-collecting operation is at the center of the Ninth District investigation, did not cast his own ballot through the mail.
He went to a polling place and voted early.
Alan Blinder reported from Lumberton, N.C., and Michael Wines from Washington.