It is easy for Democrats to feel some glee about revelations that a Republican operative may have committed absentee ballot fraud in connection with last month’s election for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. Not only does this mean that Democrat Dan McCready may have a chance to beat Republican Mark Harris in a new election that the state election board or the U.S. House of Representatives may order, giving Democrats a chance to pick up a 41st Republican seat this election cycle. The idea of a Republican operative being caught up in election shenanigans after North Carolina Republicans and others have been yelling so loudly in the past decade about the false specter of Democratic “voter fraud” deliciously demonstrates the hypocrisy and disingenuousness of Republican rhetoric about election integrity.
But to me, the circumstances surrounding the North Carolina election controversy are profoundly depressing, because they reveal that even incontrovertible facts are not going to get in the way of a narrative used to justify a host of suppressive laws aimed at making it harder for those likely to vote for Democrats to register and to vote, not only in North Carolina, but in Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.
The efforts are likely going to continue to accelerate despite what we can learn about election integrity from the North Carolina ballot shenanigans, and it is unclear at best whether courts will continue to step up to block efforts aimed at assuring that Republicans can hold on to as much power as possible even when they lack the support of a majority of voters.
Let’s begin with what happened in the recent North Carolina 9th District congressional race. The state board of elections has refused to certify the results, and there is an ongoing investigation over the fate of absentee ballots, which might have swung the result in an election decided by 905 votes. Harris, the Republican candidate, signed a contract with a consulting firm that used Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., a Republican political operative, for absentee ballot operations in Bladen County. Evidence so far suggests that Dowless used operatives to collect absentee ballots, sometimes filling in blank ballots and sometimes destroying ballots cast for Harris’ opponent, McCready. BuzzFeed reports that it was an all-cash operation where workers turned ballots over to Dowless rather than returning them to election officials as required by state law.
The scandal shows that the system of safeguards put in place by North Carolina officials works to help ferret out fraud. Members of the public and state officials have been looking at names of witnesses who signed an unusually high number of absentee ballots and at the strange pattern of high absentee ballot requests and unreturned absentee ballots requested from Democratic voters. Follow-up investigations have revealed many of the unsavory details of a history of potential problems in Bladen, history which Republican Party officials apparently ignored for at least a few elections.
At this point, it is easy to take a victory lap and point out the hypocrisy of the voter fraud outrage machine, the members of the fraudulent fraud squad who proclaim voter fraud at every turn but ignore what’s going on in Bladen. Fox News has barely covered the allegations despite spending a ridiculous amount of time on nonscandals like the handful of New Black Panther activists who went to a single Democratic precinct in Philadelphia in 2008 (Fox News billed this as a profound case of voter intimidation). Conservative vote-monitoring group True the Vote, in a fundraising email sent Thursday, made no mention of the Bladen problems. It did claim, though, that
subversion spread coast to coast in 2018. And if you think this is bad, just wait until 2020. Wait until President Trump is on the ballot. Wait until the same forces that weaponized against me, against True the Vote, against Justice Kavanaugh … wait until they begin to flex the muscle of all their newly won AG, Sec of State, and local judicial races. We may well witness the most orchestrated election manipulation this country has ever seen.
The usual suspects like Hans von Spakovsky and Kris Kobach have called for an investigation when asked about it, but here, when faced with the first credible allegation of a congressional election stolen by manipulation in years, they have remained mostly silent. (When reached for comment by Slate, von Spakovsky said that “all allegations of potential voter fraud,” including those like the one in North Carolina, should be investigated.) North Carolina’s Voter Integrity Project, which claims voter fraud is a major problem to be stamped out at every turn, has flipped the switch, accusing Democrats of “plotting to steal an NC congressional seat.”
Kobach’s response, though, is telling about how little is likely to change for the fraudulent fraud squad and what’s likely to happen going forward. He told the Washington Post that, “based on what I have read, I am very concerned that voter fraud did occur.” In the National Review, Rich Lowry loudly proclaimed that “voter fraud is real” and suggested it could happen in California, which allows ballots to be collected by nonrelatives. Of course, Bladen did not involve “voter” fraud at all, but instead an election crime which took votes away from actual voters. And there’s no evidence that anyone acted illegally in collecting absentee ballots in California.
This bleeding of categories and states is clearly going to be a pattern. There’s likely going to be a new election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, and Harris might even win again if there’s no way of connecting him directly to the election crimes. But the facts of Bladen will be elided into a general sense that elections can be “stolen” and that “voter fraud” remains a major problem. Indeed, even as North Carolina Republicans were mostly silent about Bladen, they were busy passing a new restrictive voter identification law in the name of preventing voter fraud after the last one was struck down by the Fourth Circuit as targeting black voters “with almost surgical precision.” Voter ID laws prevent only voter impersonation fraud and would do nothing to stop what went on in Bladen, and I’ve been arguing for the better part of a decade that there is simply no evidence that such a stupidly conceived crime is being used to swing any elections. If the Bladen absentee scandal came to light, can you imagine what would happen if people paid others to show up in great numbers to vote in the names of others on the rolls?
Over in Wisconsin, too, we are seeing a replay of past suppressive efforts. In 2016, the state had its cutback in early voting stopped by a federal court, and now in the lame-duck session before a Democratic governor comes in, the legislature is passing another cutback in early voting. Currently, counties can provide up to six weeks of early voting, and the new law would mandate that counties offer no more than two. Republican Wisconsin legislators made the specious argument that they were enacting the latest cutback in the name of uniformity by making sure each county has the same amount of time to vote. What they are really trying to do is make it harder for voters in more densely populated Madison and Milwaukee to have a chance to vote without facing long lines. The principle should be uniformity of voter opportunities, not counties.
In Florida, the secretary of state (who serves at the pleasure of the Republican governor) has been putting stumbling blocks in front of county election officials who are trying to register former felons who have completed their sentences. Florida voters overwhelmingly passed an initiative restoring these voting rights, and now the secretary of state is claiming the need to slow it down for administrative reasons, when the real reason is likely that many of these voters will vote for Democrats.
Meanwhile, Republicans keep their heads in the sand when it comes to the real problems with our election system. Witness Georgia, where data scientists have uncovered a very troubling pattern of 100,000 missing votes in the race for lieutenant governor in November. It is likely going to take another lawsuit to try to figure out if deliberate manipulation, voting machine error, or something else explains this troubling pattern. And this is on top of a pattern of vote suppression which has led allies of Stacey Abrams, who ran unsuccessfully for Georgia governor, to bring a monster lawsuit attacking the totality of Georgia’s election system as discriminatory.
In the past, we could count on courts to step up and police some of the most egregious attempts to disenfranchise voters. And perhaps they still will, given how blatant and transparently troubling some of these new actions are. But I’m far less confident that a new Supreme Court with Chief Justice John Roberts as the deciding vote is going to be a big protector of voting rights.
Instead it is going to take continued vigilance—and political agitation—to make sure we have a fair election and voting system. Now’s not the time for even a short victory lap.