By Paul Waldman (Washington Post) Opinion writer
As you surely know, Republicans everywhere are deeply, deeply concerned about the possibility that fraud might taint elections. The integrity of the ballot is so important to them, in fact, that they will happily disenfranchise thousands of voters if that’s what it takes to make sure that not a single illegitimate vote is cast. They’ll purge voters from the rolls, impose onerous registration requirements, require picture IDs knowing that many voters don’t have them, all to make sure that every vote cast is pristine and pure.
Which is why Republicans everywhere are outraged about what seems to have happened in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district.
Oh wait. Actually, they’re not. You’d have a hard time finding a Republican who has spoken out about this case, and conservative media have been largely uninterested in what looks like one of the most blatant instances of election fraud in recent history. It’s almost as if — and you might want to sit down while I tell you this — all the talk about voter fraud from Republicans wasn’t actually sincere, but rather a cover for efforts to suppress the votes of Democrats. Imagine!
This is a fascinating case, however. When the election was completed, Republican Mark Harris led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, yet the state’s bipartisan election commission refused to certify Harris as the winner, citing irregularities it had become aware of. The more we learned about what had happened — mostly from enterprising local reporters — the weirder the story got. And it tells us a lot about what election fraud actually is, and what it isn’t.
North Carolina's election-fraud investigation sets its sights on GOP operative
Weeks after the midterms, an election-fraud investigation in North Carolina's 9th District is focusing on an operative who worked for the GOP candidate. (Jenny Starrs , Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)
It started with unusual patterns among absentee voting in the district, going back to the primary in which Harris defeated incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger by just 828 votes. It turns out that Harris won an implausible 96 percent of the absentee votes in Bladen County in the primary.
Absentee ballots are at the center of the general election controversy as well. Reports have been coming in of voters in heavily Democratic areas saying official-looking people had come to their door requesting their absentee ballots, saying they would turn them in on the voters’ behalf. And suspicious patterns emerged among ballots that weren’t returned. For instance, in Robeson County, 822 of the unreturned ballots had been sent to Democrats and only 78 to Republicans. In Bladen County, results suggest either that Mark Harris had a spectacular and highly localized cross-party appeal to Democrats casting ballots by absentee, or someone filled out a whole lot of ballots fraudulently.
Then we learned about a man named Leslie McCrae Dowless, a consultant hired by the Harris campaign (or more precisely, hired by a firm hired by the campaign) to work on absentee ballots. A notorious figure in North Carolina politics, he’s also a convicted felon who spent six months in jail for fraud in the 1990s. “Dowless and his wife were accused of taking out an insurance policy on a dead man and collecting nearly $165,000 from his death,” according to the Charlotte Observer. He also has a felony perjury conviction on his record. This BuzzFeed story by Brianna Sacks and Otillia Steadman contains some more incredible details about the operation he mounted on Harris’s behalf:
Now two women intimately involved with the McCrae Dowless’s absentee ballot machine have revealed to BuzzFeed News its grim and chaotic workings, in which Dowless tracked votes on yellow paper and paid his workers, including family members, from stacks of cash, which some used to keep themselves high on opioids while they worked. […]
She did, though, say that campaign workers delivered sealed absentee ballots from the homes of people who requested them to McCrae Dowless’s office — though North Carolina law forbids third parties from handling those ballots.
While there’s a lot of investigating still to be done, what may well have happened here is that Dowless’s operation collected absentee ballots from voters and either filled them out themselves or, failing that, turned in the ones from Republicans and tossed the ones from Democrats in the trash. To be clear, we don’t know for sure that’s what happened, but it’s what it looks like.
One reaction you might have to this story is, “Well, that seems pretty crazy, but it’s not like it happens all the time.” Exactly.
The point is that absentee ballots are one of the only areas of elections where it’s even possible to commit fraud on a scale significant enough to potentially swing an election, as may well have happened in North Carolina. But you don’t hear Republicans crying that we need to put new safeguards in place in the absentee ballot system.
Why not? Because doing so wouldn’t help Republicans. But things such as voter ID, which ostensibly safeguard against voter impersonation — where someone shows up at the polls pretending to be someone they aren’t — absolutely do. That’s despite the fact that voter impersonation is not only incredibly rare; even in theory it would be almost impossible to use it to swing an election. You can get a few workers to spend a few weeks going through neighborhoods telling people you’ll turn in their absentee votes for them, and you might be able to eliminate hundreds of votes for your opponent. But how many votes could you swing with an impersonation scam? Three? Five? Ten?
It would be useless, which is why nearly every one of the tiny number of impersonation cases that happens turns out to be some stupid but sort-of-well-intentioned scheme like someone impersonating their recently deceased relative to cast the vote they think they would have wanted.
But on the North Carolina case — finally, actual election fraud! — Republicans are silent. So I have a hope, perhaps a vain one. It’s that after this, they’ll just give up their repulsively disingenuous claim that their vote suppression measures are actually about “voter fraud” and “the integrity of the ballot” and just say forthrightly what everyone knows: They don’t actually care about voter fraud. They want to suppress the votes of Democrats, and they’ll use any tactic they can to do it.
Perhaps they could take a cue from Republicans in Wisconsin, who are moving to limit the power of the governor and attorney general now that Democrats just won those offices. They could have painted their actions as serving some high-minded, abstract principle about the balance of power between the branches of state government, but they haven’t really bothered. “Listen. I’m concerned,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. “I think that Governor-elect [Tony] Evers is going to bring a liberal agenda to Wisconsin.” His counterpart in the other chamber, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, agreed: “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”
In other words, as far as they’re concerned, even when voters choose a Democrat to be governor, he has no legitimate right to govern, because he’s a Democrat. Just like they think that Democratic voters don’t have any inherent right to cast their votes.
So c’mon, Republicans. We all know what you really think and what you’re really up to. Why not come clean about it?