Opinion

A House Race in North Carolina Gets Curiouser and Curiouser

Who knew the background checks for political work were so lax?

For a while it looked like Republican Mark Harris had squeaked out a win in the 9th District. But there’s something rotten in the state of North Carolina, Curtis writes. (John D. Simmons/AP file photo)

OPINION — CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Perhaps North Carolina’s 9th District will have a congressman by January; but maybe not.

You see, there seems to have been a mix-up in the count, distribution and collection of absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties, which make up part of the district — what the state elections board (made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and one independent) called “unfortunate activities” when it first refused to certify the results.

For a while, it looked as though the Republican, former Baptist pastor Mark Harris, had beaten the Democrat, Marine veteran and businessman Dan McCready, by a mere 905 votes of about 280,000 cast in the gerrymandered district that may not exist after a court-ordered redraw. But now investigations, possible lawsuits and an absence of official results mean this particular 2018 race may not be decided until 2019.

Soon-to-be House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland is in no rush. He has said Democrats may refuse to seat Harris in 2019 unless and until “substantial” questions about the integrity of the election process are resolved. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is calling for an emergency hearing.   

In sworn statements, voters in Bladen County described people coming to their doors and picking up their absentee ballots, some complete and some not, which in North Carolina is illegal. The same few names showed up as witnesses on many of the ballots, and it turns out that the man allegedly orchestrating the operation — paid by a firm contracted by the Harris campaign — was previously convicted on felony fraud charges.

Who knew the background checks for political work were so lax?

Missing the point

Election data show the numbers of absentee ballots requested and returned were wildly off the norm in those two counties. And, as observers sadly have come to expect in North Carolina and beyond, it appears minority voters were disproportionately targeted and affected.

You might ask, who would turn in their votes to official-looking canvassers? Those who have learned to follow the system, and who feel they have little choice.

Were blank absentee ballots filled in for the favored candidate? Were ballots filled in with the “wrong” name discarded? Stay tuned for answers to these and other questions.

It wouldn’t be North Carolina without a heavy dose of irony — in this case, the convoluted history of efforts to pass a voter ID bill. Previous restrictions enacted by the legislature after the U.S. Supreme Court’s invalidation of key provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act were rejected by the courts for honing in on minority voters with “almost surgical precision.” Despite that, the issue was given new life by voters in the midterms, who approved a voter ID amendment to the state’s constitution after more Republican cries of “voter fraud,” which has been proven to be practically nonexistent.

There were no details on exactly what forms of ID would be required, a blank that legislators in a lame-duck session are trying to fill in with language heading to the state House for floor debate and, Republicans must hope, quick passage before the party loses its supermajority next year. (The party overplayed its heavy hand and, even with gerrymandered districts, voters were able to bring back a bit of oversight; both chambers in the North Carolina General Assembly will no longer be able to automatically override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes, as they have been doing since his 2016 election.)

The fact that the kind of election fraud alleged in this latest scandal is exactly the kind that would not be addressed by an ID bill while the absentee ballot process is much easier to manipulate is lost on no one. The House language even adds some ID tightening for absentee ballots, showing a belated bit of self-awareness.

A feature, not a bug

Instead of North Carolina being an example of what not to do in a functioning democracy, it seems the contagion is spreading. In Wisconsin and Michigan, where voters chose Democrats for top leadership positions in the governor’s mansion and other statewide offices, Republicans are using legislative majorities in lame-duck sessions to push through sweeping agendas limiting the powers of the new officials the voters have chosen.

So, democracy is a good thing only when you win.

On the federal and state level, a patronizing anti-democracy is becoming a feature not a bug of the GOP. It was the case in the North Carolina “model,” when legislators, armed with a belief in the righteousness of their cause, hampered the governor’s power with a tsunami of restrictive legislation, voters’ wishes being beside the point.

In the midterm vote, North Carolina voters rejected two attempts to further reduce the governor’s power through constitutional amendments, which means the elections board considering all the evidence in this latest potential scandal may disappear. But as of now, a hearing on or before Dec. 21 is scheduled to try to make some sense of what happened and what happens next in the 9th District race.

Every day, with every new revelation, many unearthed by North Carolina reporters, academics and followers of politics, the calls for a new election grow stronger. The Charlotte Observer quotes a state statute that authorizes the Board of Elections to “take any other action necessary to assure that an election is determined without taint of fraud or corruption and without irregularities that may have changed the result of an election” in its editorial recommending a new general election and urging the U.S. House to order a new primary, since Harris’ close victory over GOP incumbent Robert Pittenger raised similar questions.

The board could toss out contested ballots, order a new election or do nothing at all.

Until then, national eyes are once again on North Carolina, for all the wrong reasons. Was the state jealous that Georgia and Florida were getting all the attention for Election Day shenanigans and moved in to show those amateurs how it’s done?

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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