Just as the book was set to close on the 2018 elections, a key congressional race has been thrown into disarray.
There is mounting evidence that political operatives working for Republican Mark Harris’s campaign illegally harvested absentee by mail ballots in Bladen County. This led to Harris winning the absentee by mail totals in the southeastern county by several hundred votes — and may or may not have affected the final outcome.
The big questions remaining: What did Harris know, and when did he know it?
Here’s what we know at this point.
How did this all start?
The N.C. Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement certified the results of nearly every race in the state at the end of November — with one major exception: the 9th Congressional District, where Republican Mark Harris squeaked out a tight race against well-funded Democrat Dan McCready by about 900 votes.
Citing unnamed “unfortunate activities,” Robeson attorney, prominent Democrat and elections board vice chairman Joshua Malcolm pushed a motion to delay certifying the results of that election. He cited the board’s authority under state law to make sure that “without taint of fraud or corruption and without irregularities that may have changed the result of an election.”
That triggered a massive outcry among Republicans, and for pretty good reason. It goes without saying that it is incredibly unusual for an elections board to suddenly and without explanation halt the democratic process.
But as more information emerged, the allegations grew more and more troubling.
What exactly is alleged to have happened with the 9th Congressional District election?
The State Board of Elections has given little information. But numerous media reports and affidavits provided by the Democratic Party show that the controversy centers on Bladen County, where absentee by mail voting numbers don’t add up.
In both the 9th District primary and the general election, Bladen County had an unusually high percentage of people request absentee ballots by mail. An unusually small percentage of those ballots were returned.
Of absentee by mail votes that were returned, Harris dominated. That’s even though there’s a relatively small percentage of Bladen voters who are Republicans. McCready dominated every other county’s absentee by mail returns.
While all that is questionable, it doesn’t necessarily prove wrongdoing. Perhaps the campaign did a good job pushing supporters to request absentee ballots by mail.
But a potential reason why is illustrated by a handful of handful of sworn affidavits distributed to the media. They allege that political activists went around collecting absentee ballots, an illegal process known as harvesting. These operatives may or may not have turned them in, depending on how the person voted.
One man in particular, McCrae Dowless, has been named as a leader of the harvesting efforts. He’s well-known in Bladen County, and on the payroll of the Harris campaign.
The TLDR version: The implication is that people trying to tip the election in Harris’s favor requested absentee ballots for a lot of people in Bladen County, and then tried to go pick them up, fill them in and return the ones they could.
Is there enough potential fraud to tip the election?
It’s unclear. We’re still waiting on more information.
But it appears like we’re looking at 700 or so absentee by mail ballots in Bladen County. Even throwing out that many Harris votes would not be enough to change the election — though it’s close.
The bigger question is whether the Harris campaign knew what was going on or condoned it. That would be a serious scandal.
There have been media reports that Harris recommended Dowless to others, meaning the candidate knew the operative personally.
Where do things stand now?
On Tuesday, November 27, the State Board of Elections first tapped the brakes by voting 9-0 to delay certifying the results of the election. At that point, they set a meeting for Friday, November 30.
At that follow-up meeting, the board voted 7-2, with two Republicans dissenting, to continue to delay certifying the results. They decided to hold an evidentiary hearing no later than December 21.
At that point, presumably, we’ll get more information.
What could happen with the race?
There are three primary ways this could go.
- In the first, the State Board of Elections could find that there’s not enough evidence that the election was compromised, and certify Harris’s victory.
- If the fairness of the election is in question, the State Board of Elections has the power to order a new election between Harris and McCready.
- The U.S. House could also step in and refuse to seat Harris in Congress. In that case, there would be a special election with a filing period, a primary and a general.
Why is all this coming up now?
That’s a fair question. Similar allegations have come up in the 2016 elections, and similar numbers were present in the May primary election.
It’s possible that the State Board of Elections has been investigating since then.
Why was there an uproar among Republicans?
It’s not just because it threw the outcome of the election into question, though that is probably the main part. There’s a broader legitimacy question at the Board of Elections.
Malcolm has a history of unilaterally throwing his weight around on the state board for political purposes. The chairman of the board, Andy Penry, is also the subject of an ethics complaint about posting multiple tweets criticizing President Donald Trump and the Republican Party.
Further, it comes amid a larger debate about the State Board of Elections.
For the past year, the Republican-led General Assembly has been pushing for a rearranged Board of Elections that doesn’t have a clear partisan majority.
For a long time, this board had 5 members, three from the governor’s party, and two from the opposition party.
When Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was elected, the General Assembly moved to make it an eight-member board, with four members from each party. This was eventually struck down by the N.C. Supreme Court. A proposed constitutional amendment to enshrine this arrangement failed this year amid opposition from the state’s living former governors.
As it stands today, the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has 9 members, with four from each party and a final member not affiliated with a party. This person is Damon Circosta, executive director of the leftist A.J. Fletcher Foundation.
While it’s unclear whether anything would have changed in how this particular case has unfolded, it would certainly lend more credibility to the process.
And finally, across the country, Democrats have in several instances claimed that races they’ve lost have been due to illegal activity. This is the first instance in North Carolina this cycle.
Is Mark Harris in trouble?
Not directly. Harris is calling for the election to be certified.
The State Board of Elections has subpoenaed the Harris campaign and his consultant, Red Dome Group.
If there is evidence that Harris knew about illegal ballot harvesting activity, he could be subject to criminal charges.
However, if Harris makes it through this investigation and is seated in Congress, he’s likely to be significantly weakened politically and vulnerable in 2020.
The bottom line
With the suddenness of the initial decision, it’s understandable why people were quick to jump to conclusions and question whether partisanship played a role in the State Board of Elections decision.
Investigators face difficult calls about when to raise flags. In Charlotte, FBI agents arrested Mayor Patrick Cannon a few months after he took office, though he had been investigated for months while he campaigned. It’s unclear whether action could have been taken before the mayoral election was over.
The same goes here. Could the State Board of Elections have acted before Election Day? Perhaps. Perhaps not. We’re still waiting for information. Here’s hoping the state board is more forthcoming soon.
But the main issue is this: It’s imperative that North Carolina get to the bottom of this potential illegal activity as soon as possible. If that means Republicans lose a seat, so be it.