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It wasn't federal investigators but number-crunching academics and local journalists who unearthed the facts in North Carolina’s Bladen County. There, a team apparently run by a convicted fraudster illegally collected absentee ballots and, potentially, tampered with them or tossed them in the garbage. The fraud allegations come at a moment of greater concern over US election security. In fact, eight in 10 Americans are at least somewhat concerned about people hacking the country’s voting systems, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research study published last month. In that way, the election fraud scandal in North Carolina may supply new clarity regarding the true dynamics of election manipulation in the US – while, perhaps, adding urgency to how it can be more capably curbed. “This case in North Carolina demonstrates where there are some real problems, as opposed to fears of voter fraud,” says Barbara Headrick, a professor who studies the intersection of law and politics. “This is not about people trying to vote illegally. This is people who are trying to legitimately use their franchise who are then having it taken by an organized effort in favor of one candidate – by changing votes, by stealing them.”
A country still dealing with potential election interference by foreign agents is now facing a home-grown scandal: credible and bipartisan allegations that a small-town operator in rural North Carolina used illicit means to swing a 905-vote win for a Republican House candidate.
A bipartisan elections board in North Carolina unanimously declined to certify the Ninth District election last week after “unfortunate activities,” in the words of the board’s vice chair – apparent mass-manipulation of absentee ballots – came to light.
On Tuesday, the story grew even deeper. Affidavits suggest that Republican officials shared early voting data with partisans while withholding that information from Democrats. The debate has now shifted from whether one operator’s actions affected the results to whether the entire proceeding is so tainted that a new election is necessary.
While the state has until Dec. 21 to either certify or call for a “re-do,” Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has suggested that a Democrat-controlled House may refuse to seat Republican Mark Harris until the irregularities are fully exposed and resolved.
To be sure, election experts say county-level electoral fraud is part of a long American tradition, especially in the South, that carries on to this day. It tends to occur in barely watched elections in remote, often poor regions where ballot corruption can offer spoils like power and cash.
But the fraud allegations come at a moment of greater concern over US election security. In fact, eight in 10 Americans are at least somewhat concerned about people hacking the country’s voting systems, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research study published last month.
In that way, the election fraud scandal in North Carolina may supply new clarity regarding the true dynamics of election manipulation in the US – while, perhaps, adding urgency to how it can be more capably curbed.
“This case in North Carolina demonstrates where there are some real problems, as opposed to fears of voter fraud,” says Barbara Headrick, a professor at University of Minnesota, Moorhead, who studies the intersection of law and politics. “This is not about people trying to vote illegally. This is people who are trying to legitimately use their franchise who are then having it taken by an organized effort in favor of one candidate – by changing votes, by stealing them.”
Number crunching, old-fashioned journalism
As America learns through investigations into the 2016 election more about shadowy forces tugging at US elections, number-crunching academics and shoe-leather journalists unearthed the facts in Bladen County. There, a team apparently run by a colorful convicted fraudster illegally collected absentee ballots and, potentially, tampered with them or tossed them in the garbage.
In that way, the NC-9 race puts a believably human face to fraud: Faulkneresque characters working the countryside as “ballot brokers,” threading the legal needles of the absentee ballot system, skipping a few ethical stitches along the way.
When searching through data, Catawba College political scientist J. Michael Bitzer discovered that 19 percent of mail-in absentee voters in the county were registered Republicans. However, 62 percent of the total absentee vote went to the Republican candidate. Bitzer had never seen such an anomaly. And shoe-leather reporting by TV reporter Joe Bruno in Charlotte put faces to the claims. On Wednesday, WECT 6 reported that Kenneth Simmons of Robeson County signed an affidavit saying he and his wife saw operative Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. holding more than 800 absentee ballots outside a campaign event. (In North Carolina, it is illegal for anyone other than a direct family member to turn in a ballot for someone.) “The way I look at it, I don’t care if you are Republican, unaffiliated, or Democrat. I want it fair,” Simmons told WECT 6.
“In a small county like Bladen, if this had not been a competitive congressional contest, probably nobody would have picked up on this, to be candid,” says Dr. Bitzer, who published the anomalous data on his blog. “[Absentee-ballot manipulation] happens in small races, sheriff’s races, a variety of different environments,” he says. Given the impact, “this will probably force a reevaluation of procedures in North Carolina. But my bigger concern is how you can ultimately stop human behavior if we are at the point of winning at any cost, which is where our polarized partisanship is at, at this point.”
North Carolina is already helping to answer that question. At first Republicans threatened to sue if the board didn’t certify the results. But as more details have come out, the state is moving closer to holding a special election in 2019, potentially including a new primary. Revelations that county election officials shared early voting data with Republicans only underscore how the fraud may extend beyond a paid vote broker to pure government corruption, one key Republican said.
“This action by election officials would be a fundamental violation of the sense of fair play, honesty, and integrity that the Republican Party stands for,” North Carolina GOP chairman Robin Hayes said in a statement issued Monday, saying if true, the allegations would warrant a new election. ”We can never tolerate the state putting its thumb on the scale.”
His dismay resounds. Voters across the US have focused on bipartisan efforts to shore up the vote, in several states by curtailing political gerrymandering that creates safe districts for the party in power – a fount of partisan distrust across the US. Missouri is about to hire its first ever state demographer tasked with drawing more equitable districts.
On the other hand, Republican-led states have acted primarily to prevent in-person voter fraud by passing ID laws. States like Colorado and Washington mail every voter a stamped mail-in ballot. Safeguards in the system have largely prevented fraud in those states, election observers say.
The NC-9 election “is indicative of fraud in a sense, because it is so hard to commit widespread fraud that you usually see it in onesies or twosies, or in larger amounts on the edges of the electoral system,” says Charles Stewart III, a voting technology expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. “Often the fraud has become financially advantageous to somebody, and they are willing to risk it because they feel like the rest of the world isn’t paying attention.”
In the Tar Heel case, however, the ruse was bound to be discovered, he says. “North Carolina is incredibly transparent, so if you are going to do something squirrelly it’s going to be noticed – especially if you do something squirrelly at the scale that you think it might affect a congressional election.”
The South has a historical tolerance for such malfeasance, Bitzer says.
Kentucky had vote-buying scandals up into this decade. Alabama faces perennial county election scandals, oftentimes featuring intra-party Democratic corruption in rural majority-black counties. And the biggest vote-buying scandal in US history came in the late 1990s out of rural Georgia, where a rite of passage for turning voting age had long been to receive cash for one’s first vote, according to the FBI.
“In Southern politics there has always been a strong relationship between county politics and walking-around money,” says Bitzer at Catawba College. “Even with the Voting Rights Act and other measures to protect the vote, human nature is very much prone to corruptive influences, and the South at times can be a leader in that particular mentality.”
The scope of the problem goes beyond the South, from county operatives to geopolitical scoundrels in front of computer screens. But it also shows how vigilance on the part of the voting public and bipartisan referees makes decisive election fraud difficult to pull off.
“[Ballot manipulation and vote influencing] is about poverty and marginality,” says Professor Stewart at MIT. “Even in the 19th century where you saw efforts to buy votes, it’s going to be poor people who are ... subject to these sorts of temptations. It involves people preying on somebody’s lack of knowledge of the laws, or that a payment of $10 might actually be worth their while to skirt the law.
“In other words, if you don’t feel an investment in the vote to begin with, then it becomes a means toward another end. That’s the story here. And it happens in cities in the North, it happens in rural areas. You don’t need to be playing the theme from ‘Deliverance’ to believe that something like this might be happening in your hometown.”