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.