While the rest of the country has experienced an orderly counting of votes from the midterm elections earlier this month, an electoral calamity has emerged in North Carolina. Republican Mark Harris holds a lead of 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready in the state’s 9th Congressional District. But the state elections board has refused to certify Harris’ victory in light of serious, credible allegations of wrongdoing that look like they were designed to throw the election to Harris. The board must now hold a hearing into this alleged chicanery and decide whether to call a new election.
Unfortunately for the board, a court recently ruled that its very existence is unconstitutional. It is currently set to dissolve at midnight on Monday.
The problems in North Carolina stem from what the North Carolina State Board of Elections’ vice chair euphemistically calls “unfortunate activities” in Bladen County. A series of affidavits submitted to the board raise the possibility of a scheme to suppress the county’s absentee ballots, which skew Democratic. Two voters stated that a young woman came to their houses and claimed she was responsible for collecting absentee ballots. One voter allowed the woman to finish filling out her ballot for her; the other gave the mystery woman the ballot without signing it or placing it in a sealed envelope. Another individual, Dwight Sheppard, told the board that he heard people at a polling station say that local operative Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. was set to receive a $40,000 bonus if Harris won.
Reports of an unidentified woman illegally collecting partially completed ballots may help to explain why the number of unreturned absentee mail-in ballots in the 9th Congressional District was unusually high. Compared with other North Carolina counties, the counties in this district had a substantially higher rate of mail-in ballots that were requested but not returned. Moreover, Harris received a surprisingly high percentage of votes from absentee mail-in ballots, winning 61 percent to McCready’s 38 percent. Indeed, Bladen County was the only county in the state in which a Republican candidate won the absentee vote.
Taken together, these facts suggest that someone may have illegally collected and scrapped Democratic absentee mail-in ballots to help secure Harris’ victory. That’s why the elections board refused to certify the race. The members are divided along partisan lines, with four Democrats, four Republicans, and one unaffiliated. But they unanimously chose to delay the certification and decided on Friday to hold a hearing into potential fraud.
If the commission were to conclude it has plausible evidence of misconduct, it could order a new election. If it cannot reach a conclusion either way, the U.S. House of Representatives could hold its own hearings and choose the winner.
But there is another possibility bubbling beneath the surface: chaos. The current elections board was created by the GOP legislature in order to strip Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of his authority over elections. In October, however, a state court ruled that the board’s structure violated separation of powers principles under the North Carolina Constitution. Legislative Republicans had hoped to reverse this decision through a constitutional amendment sent to the voters in November. But voters rejected the amendment transferring power away from the governor, leaving the court’s decision standing. As a result, the court’s order—prohibiting the board from operating beyond midnight on Dec. 3—remains in effect. There is a very real chance that, in the midst of resolving a disputed election, the board will cease to exist in its current form.
Cooper could avoid this outcome by asking the court to stay its decision a bit longer in light of the extraordinary circumstances. But after dealing with hardball Republican tactics for two years, he does not seem ready to back down. The North Carolina Department of Justice has announced that once the court’s stay dissolves, the board will revert to its original form: a five-member body with three members from the governor’s party and two from the opposition party. That’s what Cooper has wanted all along, and he clearly isn’t eager to postpone it again. As of Thursday night, Cooper had not yet shown his hand. His spokesman, Ford Porter, told the Raleigh News & Observer: “It’s clear that when the stay dissolves, the law will revert to the former board structure and we are reviewing what the law allows.”
For its part, the board appears prepared to disappear, even as it plans for an imminent hearing. At the end of Friday’s meeting, its chairman thanked his fellow board members in an apparent farewell. “I have enjoyed serving with all of you,” he told them, reported the News & Observer’s Lauren Horsch. “Thank you for your cooperation and hard work during the time we’ve served together.”
The outcome of this race doesn’t matter much for the composition of the U.S. House of Representatives, where Democrats will already hold a substantial advantage in 2019. But the incident further illustrates what a mess North Carolina has become under the iron-fisted rule of a legislature dominated by Republicans, thanks in part to one of the country’s most ruthless gerrymanders. If the GOP hadn’t spent two years trying to wrest control of elections from Cooper, the state might have well-functioning electoral infrastructure. Instead, it is teetering on the precipice of bedlam.