On November 6, 2018, Republican Mark Harris defeated Democrat Dan McCready in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District election by 905 votes. After a span of about three months, on February 21, 2019, Harris announced that he advises that a new election for his seat be held. He will not run again.
Harris’s seat went unrepresented in the first meetings of the 116th Congress in light of fraud allegations against him. The election was remarkably close. By early December, the North Carolina Democratic Party had filed affidavits with the State Board of Elections claiming that Harris’s campaign had hired independent contractors to collect absentee ballots. If this accusation were legitimate, the hiring of these contractors would have been in violation of a North Carolina law that dictates that only the voter, their close family members, and their guardian are eligible to deliver their absentee ballot.
Harris hired a man named Leslie McCrae Dowless. Dowless has a history of working with candidates of both parties to scrounge up absentee votes. He has been investigated in the past for having employees forge signatures and collect ballots, but has not been prosecuted yet. In addition to Harris hiring a staffer with a questionable track record, there are four particularly pertinent details that arouse suspicion about election fraud.
First, people who worked for Harris claim he encouraged them to collect absentee ballots from voters, which, again, is blatantly illegal by North Carolina law. Second, according to affidavits, some voters were told by the alleged ballot harvesters that it was acceptable to leave the ballots unfilled and unsealed, making it very possible to tamper with the ballots. Third, in six out of the eight counties in the district, only 3 percent of the vote was cast by absentee ballot. In comparison, that number was 7.3 in Bladen County and similarly high in Robeson County. Fourth, there were statistical anomalies among the counted absentee ballots: while only 19 percent of Bladen County’s accepted absentee ballots were cast by Republicans, Harris received 61 percent of Bladen’s absentee votes, meaning he won every registered Republican, every unaffiliated voter, and some registered Democrats. In Bladen County, more than 40 percent of the absentee ballots requested by African Americans and more than 60 percent of those requested by Native Americans did not make it back to elections officials, whereas only 17 percent of ballots cast by white voters did not make it back. In Robeson County, these numbers are 75 percent for African Americans and 69 percent for Native Americans.
Harris initially insisted that he had not been aware of any illegal activities carried out by Dowless and his workers. But after his son Jared Harris delivered an emotional speech at the hearing in which Jared claimed he had warned his father about Dowless, Mark took to the stand to call for a new election. Referring to his stroke in late January, Mark stated, “Though I thought I was ready to undergo the rigors of this hearing and am getting stronger, I clearly am not. And I struggled this morning with both recall and confusion. Through the testimony I’ve listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called.” Mark did not confess to engaging in election fraud; he acknowledged that losing the trust of the American people is grounds for a new election.
In response to the situation in North Carolina, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stated in a speech on the Senate floor, “For years and years, every Republican who dared to call for common-sense safeguards for America’s ballots was demonized by Democrats and their allies. Now that an incident of very real voter fraud has become national news, these long-standing Democratic talking points have been really quiet. Haven’t heard much lately from the Democrats about how fraud never happens.” In making this statement, McConnell meant to tie what happened in North Carolina to the current debate regarding voting rights in Congress.
Voting rights have been a highly contentious issue since Shelby County v. Holder (2013), with debate becoming increasingly heated since the fall of 2018. In fact, Democrats in Congress have announced the fight for voting rights as a priority for the 116th Congress, and as such, the House Democrats’ first bill addressed that very concern.
As a general rule, Republican legislators tend to support voting restrictions, whereas Democrats tend to support measures to make voting more accessible, particularly to minority voters. Where Democrats argue that restrictions on voting rights disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters, Republicans argue that they are needed to fight the rampant voter fraud that threatens our democracy. McConnell argued that what happened in North Carolina proves that Republicans are in the right.
But the problem for McConnell is that what happened in North Carolina was not voter fraud. It was election fraud: Hiring contractors to collect ballots is against the law in North Carolina. It was not voters casting fraudulent votes, but rather a campaign paying for illegal conduct in order to manipulate the vote. The voters were the victims in North Carolina.
If not for the prevalence of speeches such as McConnell’s, the public would not be mislead about voter fraud. The Brennan Center found that it rarely happens and the situation in North Carolina does not fit the definition of voter fraud. Voter fraud is generally defined as follows: someone ineligible to vote in an election casts a vote in said election, or an individual pretends to be someone else when casting a ballot. This is not what happened in North Carolina. It also seems clear that what happened could not have been prevented with stricter voting laws; the campaign was breaking existing laws, not exploiting legal loopholes.
McConnell’s spinning of the North Carolina election is evidence of the fact that Republicans are fighting to get the public on their side on voting rights, a contentious issue since the first congressional meeting of the year. Republicans take the position that restrictive voting laws are necessary to protect against the evils of voter fraud. Democrats argue that restrictive voting laws are discriminatory and must be reduced. In the middle of this turbulence, McConnell saw the tactical opportunity to demonstrate the harms of less restrictive voting laws by advertising the North Carolina election as an instance of voter fraud.
The question going forward is: will the outcome of the North Carolina election actually have a significant effect on voting rights in other states? Seeing as the state-level movement for voting rights has been in action for several years, it is unlikely that this event will have much of an effect on the trajectories of state-level policy.
However, the election in North Carolina may impact the American public’s trust of the current voting system. If this concern grows large enough, voting rights could become a central topic in the upcoming elections, allowing the current efforts in the House to gain traction, despite relative failures to do so in the time since Shelby v. Holder.