Republican Mark Harris narrowly defeated his Democratic rival, Dan McCready, by a scant 905 votes in North Carolina’s Ninth District Congressional race last month. But, allegations of election fraud have thrown the outcome into question and a new election is becoming a very real possibility. The North Carolina State Board of Elections recently voted 7-2 against certifying the result amid an ongoing investigation into irregularities surrounding mail-in absentee ballots, among other things. Mr. McCready has withdrawn his concession in the race. The North Carolina Republican Party now says that at least some of the election irregularities, if they prove true, warrant a new election.
The details of exactly what happened remain murky. But, the accusations fall into four main buckets:
- A contractor hired by Mr. Harris’ campaign consultant collected mail-in absentee ballots from voters promising to turn them in on their behalf. It is illegal for third parties to handle absentee ballots.
- Mail-in absentee ballots were collected unsealed and could have been altered.
- Unusually high numbers of unreturned absentee ballots suggest the possibility that ballots were collected and not returned.
- Early voting results were tabulated in Bladen County before Election Day and potentially viewed by unauthorized people.
Improper Early Vote Tabulation
Tuesday, North Carolina GOP officials said if early voting totals were leaked, which state Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse says appears to be the case, that alone would be sufficient to justify a special election.
BREAKING: NCGOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse calls for a new #NC09 election and primary, if early voting totals were leaked by elections officials. He says they are pretty certain that happened #ncpol @wsoctv pic.twitter.com/koQA3eicsz
— Joe Bruno (@JoeBrunoWSOC9) December 11, 2018
A precinct worker in Bladen County said in an affidavit filed with the State Board of elections by Democrats that early vote totals were tabulated at the County’s one-stop voting location on the Saturday before election day and viewed by people who were not authorized to see them. State law requires that early votes be counted after the polls close on Election Day. Advance knowledge of early voting results would provide a big strategic in last-minute get out the vote efforts, especially if only one side had access to this information.
Significantly more attention has been paid to a grassroots absentee vote operation run by Leslie McCrae Dowless, an independent contractor hired by Red Dome Group, the campaign consultant to Mr. Harris’ campaign. Typically, absentee ballot drives employ canvassers to knock on doors and encourage voters likely to vote for their candidate to request absentee ballots. Canvassers will often follow-up with the voter later to ensure that they returned their completed ballots. There is nothing inherently improper about these sorts of absentee voter drives. They are routinely employed by campaigns of both parties and can be very effective at securing votes for candidates. But, they can also be prone to mischief.
Rather than a straightforward absentee voter drive, Mr. Dowless is accused of running an illegal ballot harvesting operation. Ballot harvesting is an election fraud scheme in which canvassers collect absentee-by-mail ballots from voters promising to return them on on their behalf. The ballots are then altered to favor a particular candidate or discarded when they contain votes against that candidate. There’s mounting evidence that something very much like this may have been afoot in the Ninth Congressional District, especially in the district’s Republican-heavy enclaves of Bladen and Robeson Counties. While the allegations now focus on Republicans, especially in Bladen County, allegations of election shenanigans involving absentee ballots have been going back and forth for years. The Bladen County Improvement PAC, a Democrat-aligned group, among others, has also been accused of shadiness surrounding absentee ballots in the past.
Hints in the Data
When Dr. Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College started coming through the absentee voting data, he found some big hints that something was amiss. Nearly a quarter of the requested absentee ballots in the Ninth Congressional District were never returned, far higher than any other Congressional district in the state.
This was even more pronounced in Bladen and Robeson Counties. An astonishing 40% of the requested absentee ballots requested in Bladen and 62% in Robeson were never returned according to Dr. Bitzer’s analysis of voting data. Among the ballots that were turned in things looked fishier still. In Bladen County, Republicans accounted for only 19% of the accepted absentee by-mail ballots yet somehow Mr. Harris, the Republican candidate, managed to win an astonishing 61% of the absentee by-mail vote. Either unaffiliated voters and Democrats voted for the Republican candidate in implausibly large numbers or some kind of election mischief was afoot. Affidavits filed by Democrats with the state board of elections over the past few weeks point towards the latter.
Datesha Montgomery, a Bladen County voter, said that a woman came to her door collecting absentee ballots. Ms. Montgomery only filled in votes for Sheriff and Board of Education. The woman told her that the other races didn’t matter. “I gave her the ballot and she said she would finish it herself. I signed the ballot and she left. It was not sealed up at any time,” she wrote in one of several affidavits Democrats filed.
‘Stacks’ of Ballots
Other voters have also reported turning over absentee ballots to people who knocked on their door. According to Joe Bruno, a reporter for Charlotte TV station WSOC, many of these canvassers, including the one that visited Ms. Montgomery, fit the description of people who worked for Mr. Dowless.
Mr. Bruno has spoken with at least two women who have come forward to say they were paid by Mr. Dowless to collect ballots. “I feel bad now that I know that it wasn’t legal, but I didn’t know at the time,” one of the women, Cheryl Kinlaw, said in an interview with Mr. Bruno. Ms. Kinlaw says she received $100 to collect ballots, which she delivered to Mr. Dowless. She had no idea what ultimately became of the ballots. “I don’t know what happened to them,” she added. “He had stacks of them on his desk.”
Not the First Time
North Carolina Republicans say they have been sounding the alarm about election fraud for years and are dismayed that it is only getting attention now that it may have affected a Democratic Candidate. “It’s certainly frustrating,” Jeff Hauser, spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party told Roughly Explained.
Mr. Hauser says that there were indications of similar shenanigans in Bladen County two years ago. But then it was Republicans alleging absentee ballot fraud by a PAC aligned with the Democratic Party. “In 2016, the Bladen County Improvement Association PAC was allegedly running an absentee ballot mill in the area and harvesting ballots,” Mr. Hauser said.
In an interesting twist, the person who brought the 2016 complaint was none other than Leslie McCrae Dowless. In it, Mr. Dowless alleged that workers for the PAC entered fraudulent write-in votes against him in the County Conservation Supervisor race (which he nevertheless won.) There were also instances of voters who said they had requested absentee ballots they never received and were barred from voting as a result. Ultimately, the State Board of Elections voted 3-2 to dismiss Mr. Dowless’ complaint after concluding that there were not enough disputed votes to have mattered. Given Mr. Harris’ slim lead and the scale of the alleged problems, this time around, there’s a very good chance that enough votes may be in question to sway the outcome.
A New Election is Very Possible
Under North Carolina state law, the State Board can order new elections if irregularities affected a sufficient number of voters to change the outcome of the election or “taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.” Mr. Hauser told us last week that the state Republican party would support a new election if the evidence warrants it. This week, as evidence of the problems in NC-09 mounts, Republican officials have been leaning into that position. The reality is that the State Board of Election has broad authority to order a new election. It seems increasingly likely that they will use it. Even if Mr. Harris clears the state board of elections hurdle, there is no guarantee that Democratic leaders in Washington will seat him when they take over Congress in January. For Mr. Harris, the road to Washington is set to be a lot steeper than he planned.