North Carolina House race held up by voter fraud allegations may result in a new election: experts

Republicans and absentee ballots: North Carolina House race still in limbo shines a light on real voter fraud

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 4, 2018 10:50AM (EST)

Mark Harris (AP Photo)
Mark Harris (AP Photo)

A controversial congressional election in North Carolina is going to be the subject of a public hearing held by the state's board of elections on Dec. 21 — and maybe even a new election.

On Friday the board voted by a margin of 7 to 2 that they needed to hold the public hearing "to assure that the election is determined without taint of fraud or corruption and without irregularities that may have changed the result," according to NPR. Earlier that week, the board voted unanimously to postpone certifying the election results, prompting the Associated Press to revoke its initial projection that Republican Mark Harris had defeated Democrat Dan McCready. Only 905 votes out of 283,317 ballots separated Harris from McCready in the final totals.

At least six sworn statements have been collected for the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement from rural Bladen County, which is near the border between North Carolina and South Carolina, attesting that people came to voters' doors and urged them to hand over their absentee ballots, according to The Washington Post:

Among the allegations is that an individual who worked for the Harris campaign coordinated an effort to collect and fill in, or discard, the ballots of Democratic voters who might have otherwise voted for McCready. Several of the affidavits come from elderly African American voters. It is illegal to take someone else’s ballot, whether to turn it in or discard it.

A local news station in Charlotte spoke to a woman who admitted to being at the center of what appears to be a targeted effort to illegally pick up ballots in Bladen County on behalf of Leslie McCrae Dowless, the Bladen County Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor and an “independent contractor" for Harris’ campaign.

“I was helping McCrae pick up ballots,” Ginger Eason told WSOCTV.

She further explained that she never mailed the ballots, giving them instead to Leslie McCrae Dowless.

The Charlotte Observer reports that Harris previously recommended McCrae Dowless to other politicians, although he was “convicted felon who faced jail time for fraud and perjury.” In 2016, McCrae Dowless admitted to running an operation that paid “people to obtain absentee ballots, fill them out, and cast their votes on someone else’s behalf.”

J. Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in North Carolina, told NBC News the data shows that Bladen County had an absentee ballot return rate of more than 7 percent, compared with 4 percent average in other counties in the district, and that the number of ballots requested but not returned was much higher in Bladen County — 39 percent — compared with the rest of the district, which was 24 percent:

What's more, Bitzer said that 60 percent of the absentee ballots were cast for Harris, the only county in the district to do so, even though only 19 percent of the mail-in absentee ballots were cast by Republicans and 39 percent by voters who didn’t identify with a party. That percentage would also be a major outlier considering that fewer than 40 percent of absentee voters voted Republican in every other county in the 9th Congressional District.

For his part, Harris has insisted that while he supports fair elections, he believes the results in his favor should be certified immediately.

"Make no mistake, I support any efforts to investigate allegations of irregularities and/or voter fraud, as long as it is fair and focuses on all political parties. But to date, there is absolutely no public evidence that there are enough ballots in question to affect the outcome of this race. Accordingly, the Board should act immediately to certify the race while continuing to conduct their investigation. Anything else is a disservice to the people of the Ninth District," Harris said in a statement on Friday.

Professor Mark Nance, who works for the Department of Political Science at North Carolina State University, spoke with Salon about whether it would be possible to guarantee the fairness of a potential second election in that district.

"I'm not sure. The GOP has been pushing voter ID for a long time here in NC, despite no evidence that there is a systematic fraud problem with in-person voter fraud. Critics, like me, have long argued that the biggest gap in voting was with absentee ballots, but the legislature was not interested in taking that on," Nance told Salon by email. "That likely has to do with traditional vote patterns for those who vote with absentee ballots. You have to allow for absentee ballots in a new election, otherwise, you're disenfranchising the same people all over again, plus some more. I think there are two main, albeit not exclusive, tools. The first is information: voters need to be made aware of the process of voting and how to properly handle absentee ballots. For example, it should inform them that they should not give their ballots to anyone, but should mail them in on their own. And, of course, GOTV campaigns will also be active. But the state needs to play a very strong role in countering misinformation and in providing accurate information on how to vote. The second is a tool for oversight, including the possibility of outside observers playing an integral role. There needs to be as much verification as possible at every step along the way, from state officials but also from federal ones."

Professor Steven Greene from the Political Science Department at North Carolina State University suggested that this will end with a second election.

Pretty good, I think," Greene told Salon. "I was going to say I'm no expert on this, but I don't think too many people are because this is so unusual and rare. And I think as much as anything, and certainly that's a possible legal remedy, and I would argue probably the most sensible one, because to have the legitimacy of an election so called into question is extremely problematic for democracy and for representation. So for Harris to try and serve with this kind of cloud over his election strikes me as extremely problematic, and again the clearest solution is a new election."

New elections were recently called for a Georgia state House race earlier this year and a Louisiana judicial election last month.

North Carolina already has a very tainted recent history when it comes to respecting the voting rights of its inhabitants. This has included passing draconian Voter ID laws that were struck down in federal court, creating heavily gerrymandered congressional districts that entrench established Republican politicians in power and the Republican-controlled legislature reducing the powers of the governor after the gubernatorial election was won by a Democrat.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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