The call came at 9:38 p.m. on Election Day. The Associated Press projected Republican Mark Harris had won his race in North Carolina’s heavily gerrymandered Ninth District, a slice of the state that offered Republicans a roughly eight-point advantage. The district last had a Democratic Congressman in 1963 and most models predicted that would continue past the vote tallies on Nov. 6. It seemed straightforward.
That was 29 days ago.
In the period since, all hell has broken loose in the district. The state board of elections has twice refused to certify the results, which give pastor Harris a narrow 905-vote win over Democratic businessman Dan McCready. Voters have come forward with sworn statements that someone knocked on their door, handed them ballots, filled parts of them out and, presumably, turned them back into election officials. There’s been plenty of finger pointing and suspicion of stuffing the ballot box or votes getting lost or destroyed on their way to election offices. Professors who have reviewed the vote tallies suggest something funky happened. The feds are looking into the situation, which as it has been described appears plainly criminal. And the AP withdrew its race call.
The question now is a very basic one: Now what? Will the residents of Charlotte’s suburbs have a Representative when Congress comes back in January?
Clearly, something hinky happened. If the five sworn affidavits and the sixth unsworn one are accurate, a woman showed up at these voters’ doors, said she was collecting absentee ballots, offering to return ballots — in at least one case, a ballot that showed up unrequested — to the local elections office. Other allegations include whisper campaigns of Harris’ team perhaps paying for votes, some ballots having unusual “coding” on them and what may appear to some as election intimidation at polling locations.
In short, it appears that the specter of election fraud — long screamed from the rooftop by Republicans, seldom with any proof to back it up — materialized in this one North Carolina district. And — again, if these six affidavits are correct — the Republican nominee was the one who stood to gain from it.
Local elections officials had signs something was up. In Bladen County, more than 7 percent of registered voters asked for an absentee ballot. (The rest of the state was seeing numbers closer to 3 percent of registered voters.) Of those sent out, 40 percent never came back. In neighboring Robeson County, 62 percent of the ballots didn’t come back. (The next highest county of no-show absentee ballots logged a 27 percent ghosting rate.)
In August, the chairman of the Robeson County elections board noticed an uptick in voter registration forms and requests for absentee ballots. He flagged the efforts to the state elections panel.
He wasn’t the only one to notice. At Catawba College, near Charlotte, professor Michael Bitzer was crunching the numbers and saw reason to take a second look. In both Robeson and Bladen counties, Harris was crushing the absentee votes, picking up 61% of the mail-in vote in places that were only 19% GOP. “If ballots were manipulated without the registered voter’s knowledge, and votes were changed or spoiled to negate a vote, that would raise serious concerns about the integrity of the 9th Congressional District’s election,” Bitzer wrote in a post-election blog post that has become a must-read primer on the case. What’s more, there appear to be a deep cache of absentee ballots that were requested but never returned in Robeson and Bladen counties, perhaps suggesting there was an attempt to suppress votes.
State elections officials, meanwhile, aren’t sure what to do. The matter has been turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate. (In North Carolina, it is against the law for anyone except the voter to handle his ballot even if the vote is not tampered with.) The most generous reading of the situation is that a consultant hired by a vendor hired by the Harris campaign got too enthusiastic about a get-out-the-vote operation and crossed the line. The most nefarious reading is an elaborate effort to target rural minorities and deep-six their ballots.
Republicans, who already suffered a swamping in the midterm elections and lost their majority in the House, are as worried as Democrats. Last week, all four Republicans on the state’s Board of Elections twice sided with their four Democratic and one independent colleagues in choosing not to certify the results of the Nov. 6 race. But the board itself has its own issues: a judge is allowing the nine-person group to continue its work only until Dec. 12, when a stay will expire and an earlier ruling that it the members were empaneled unconstitutionally by the state legislature will take effect.
On Wednesday, the editorial board of the state’s largest newspaper called for both a new primary and a new general election. “Voters in the 9th District deserve the confidence that their election was free from fraud. North Carolina statute supports it. The evidence already demands it. The Board of Elections should start the election over,” the editorial in the Charlotte Observer read.
Democrats have tepidly been urging North Carolina officials to simply throw out the suspect elections and have a do-over, too. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has lawyers on the ground. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts representative who is seen as a rising star in Democratic politics, on Tuesday joined that chorus: McCready “put his life on the line for our democracy and we owe it to him to hold a fair and honest race.”
Republicans are resisting those calls, saying their candidate had the most votes.
The outcome has little obvious impact on the agenda for Congress next year. Democrats have a comfortable majority in the House, having engineered a blue wave that was the largest since Watergate. But symbolically, the outcome carries great weight. If Democrats can win in a district so heavily designed to tilt to Republicans, in a state that carries 15 electoral votes — rivaling fellow swing states Ohio and Virginia — it would be a warning sign to President Donald Trump as he looks ahead to 2020.
Then there’s the shade Democrats can throw. Finally, there appears to be evidence of election fraud. And that effort appears to have benefited a Republicans, who have for years been making their own allegations that ballots are being lost, cast illegally or counted twice. That alone is why many Democrats are watching this otherwise footnote-able district carefully. This could be a Democratic victory served with a side of irony and hypocrisy.
Correction, Dec. 5:
The original version of this story misstated Seth Moulton’s political affiliation. He is a Democratic member of the U.S. House from Massachusetts, not a Republican.