North Carolina Veers Toward a Congressional-Election Do-Over

As more revelations emerge about an alleged massive fraud operation that could have tipped a U.S. House race, there’s growing bipartisan agreement about a remedy.

A polling place in Charlotte in October 2018
A polling place in Charlotte in October 2018 (Chuck Burton / AP)

DURHAM, N.C.—It’s rare that there’s bipartisan agreement on anything in North Carolina politics today. It’s even stranger that a closely contested election rocked by claims of fraud would be the instigator.

But there’s an emerging consensus among Republicans and Democrats that the contested election in the Ninth Congressional District, tainted by sordid revelations, ought to have a do-over, the first the Old North State has ever seen.

On Tuesday, leading members of both parties said they believed there should probably be a new election. Neither side gets to choose: The decision rests with the North Carolina State Board of Elections, a group that includes members of both parties and one unaffiliated member; it has said it will hold a hearing by December 21. But there’s growing momentum for a new election.

“My opinion at this point is the level of taint has called the result so into question, based on the numerous irregularities, that if anyone objectively looks at this, a new election is needed,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College who has followed the case closely since the start.

The race between the Republican Mark Harris and the Democrat Dan McCready was closely watched ahead of the election, with Democrats hopeful they could flip the seat, currently held by Representative Robert Pittenger, whom Harris defeated in the GOP primary. But McCready conceded the day after the election, and though unofficial totals showed Harris with a slim 905-vote lead, the election seemed to be over.

But that was dramatically overturned when the NCSBE met in November and declined to certify the results of the election. Affidavits and reporting turned up evidence of widespread, significant fraud in Bladen County, a southeastern county that’s part of the Ninth Congressional District. McCrae Dowless, a veteran political operative who was subcontracted to do voter-turnout work for the Harris campaign, requested nearly 600 absentee ballots. According to claims, Dowless had a team of workers who went around collecting ballots, some of them incomplete, from voters—a violation of state law. Hundreds of absentee ballots that were requested were never turned in, raising questions about ballot destruction. On Tuesday, WECT obtained an affidavit of a man who says he saw Dowless with hundreds of completed ballots.

Dowless, a convicted felon, had previously come under scrutiny for past election work. During a 2016 hearing about a fraud complaint he himself had filed, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The former executive director of the NCSBE, Gary Bartlett, told me that the board had previously investigated fraud issues in Bladen County and referred them to prosecutors. Dowless did not return calls for comment.

Harris has denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of Dowless’s methods. His campaign owes Red Dome Consulting, which hired Dowless, more than $40,000 for work in Bladen County.

Although the alleged scale of the fraud is large, the idea that the board of elections would order a do-over seemed initially remote. Though it has ordered local elections to be rerun, there’s never been a mulligan on a U.S. House race in the state.

Yet what began as a remote possibility has become ever more likely over the past two weeks. Harris has been practically silent since the fraud claims came to light, but in a December 7 video, he said that if the amount of fraud could have tipped the election, he’d support a do-over.

On Monday, The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer reported that a witness said Bladen County officials had counted early votes ahead of Election Day—a violation of state rules—and had allowed outsiders to see them. Knowing early-vote totals could give a campaign crucial intelligence to inform Election Day tactics.

That was apparently enough to sway state Republican officials. In the early days of the news, Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina GOP, insisted that Harris’s victory be certified and that any investigation could follow. But on Tuesday, Woodhouse said that if it was true that early-vote totals had leaked, there must be another election.

“All of the choices are bad, with a lot of innocent victims,” he told Spectrum News. Notably, he declined to say whether Harris would be a viable candidate in a new election if anyone on his campaign was aware of what Dowless was doing. Robin Hayes, the chairman of the North Carolina GOP, also said the allegation of early-vote sharing, if true, warranted a new election.

A spokesman for Phil Berger, the Senate president pro tempore and the state’s most powerful Republican, said Berger would support a new election if the facts warranted it. On Tuesday in Raleigh, legislators briefly considered a provision that would have required a fresh primary election if a new general election was ordered, though the measure was dropped. The fraud claims have raised new questions about the GOP primary, in which Harris upset Pittenger. Harris won a surprisingly high portion of Bladen absentee ballots in that race as well. Berger’s spokesman said the legislature believed that if the primary was tainted, as well as the general election, the NCSBE already had the power to order a new primary as well.

Democrats find themselves in the unusual position of agreeing with Republicans, at least on the big picture. On Tuesday, in the course of a press conference lambasting Harris for not answering questions about Dowless, the North Carolina Democratic Party chairman, Wayne Goodwin, also endorsed a new election.

“I welcome what appears to be a change of heart by the North Carolina Republican Party,” he said. “I do welcome them if the Republicans now believe a new general election is warranted. I believe that it is, based on all that I’ve seen and heard.”

In a video released last week, McCready withdrew his concession and called on Harris to explain what he knew about any fraud.

The NCSBE, as well as prosecutors in Wake County, home to Raleigh, is investigating fraud. The state board could still certify the election, even if it finds fraud, but can order a new election either because fraud might have affected the results or simply because it believes that fraud taints the legitimacy of a race. Even if the NCSBE certifies, the U.S. House has the final decision on whether to seat members. Representative Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 leader of the incoming majority Democrats, has said Harris should not be seated until the facts are known.

Meanwhile, an early-winter snowstorm across the state has slowed but not stopped the flow of new information about fraud. Allegations have now spread to neighboring Robeson County, and there’s no telling whether more could be on the way.

Even before this race, there were allegations of fraud in Bladen County against candidates and operatives of both parties, and both Democrats and Republicans outside the county regarded it as a semi-lawless zone. Whatever effect election fraud might have had on the Harris-McCready race, it’s clear that the problem didn’t begin there.

Republicans in the state legislature have called for a bipartisan inquiry into election fraud across the state. (They also this week passed a voter-ID bill, which Democratic Governor Roy Cooper is expected to veto; the GOP is expected to override the veto.) Democrats say the NCSBE should be allowed to conduct its inquiry without political interference. Nonetheless, the emerging consensus on a do-over election is a surprising and significant development.

“I hate to be cynical, but if this was a long-standing issue, there was certainly bipartisanship in corruptive influence, and perhaps there is now bipartisanship to address the corruptive influence,” Michael Bitzer, the politics and history professor, said.