The controversy involving election fraud in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District is unusual but not unprecedented. There’s a long tradition of contested elections in the U.S. House of Representatives. A report from the Congressional Research Service documents 107 such episodes between 1933 and 2009. In most cases, the contests were dismissed in favor of the person whose election was challenged.
Much of Cumberland County is in the 9th district. North Carolina’s 9th district story is complicated, but here are the basics.
The 2018 general election in the 9th district was a contest between Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Mark Harris; Harris defeated the incumbent GOP holder of the seat, Robert Pittenger, in the primary. In the general election, Harris appeared to have defeated McCready by 905 votes.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections twice refused to certify the results of the race because of allegations of irregularities involving mailin absentee ballots.
Some voters claimed that individuals came to their homes and collected their unsealed ballots. Others alleged that they received absentee ballots that they never requested.
And, numerous individuals claimed they were paid by Republican political operative McCrae Dowless to collect absentee ballots from voters.
North Carolina law prescribes that, with limited exceptions, it is illegal to collect and return someone else’s absentee ballot.
Experts say that what happened in the district amounted to election fraud, not voter fraud. This terminology stems from the political definition taken on by the term “voter fraud” in recent years. That term is generally associated with purposeful actions committed by individual voters— such as voting more than once or voting in a jurisdiction where one does not live.
What allegedly happened in the local congressional district, however, is not primarily about voters casting ballots they were ineligible to cast. Rather, it involved people aligned with a political party inhibiting voters’ ability to cast ballots. This is also known as voter suppression.
Investigators are also looking into the results of the Republican primary, in which Harris beat Pittenger by just 828 votes but won 96 percent of the absentee vote in Bladen county, the easternmost county in the district, along the South Carolina border from Charlotte.
Dowless had ties to other Republican candidates in the 2018 election, and Bladen County has seen at least five separate elections investigations since 2010. Article 1, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution makes the House of Representatives the ultimate judge of “elections, returns and qualifications” of its members.
Historically, the House has been deferential to state election proceedings. When a House seat has a certified winner, which the local district does not, there is a substantial burden of proof on the loser to convince the House to reject that decision by a state.
There are two basic ways a challenge can arise in the House. The main approach is for the losing candidate to file a contest under the Federal Contested Elections Act of 1969. Or, the House may refer the question to its Committee on House Administration for an investigation. Either way, the committee has a wide range of remedies available to it, including recommending that the results of the election be rejected and a new election be held.
Comments from prominent House Democrats, including Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, indicate that Democratic leadership has begun considering its options.
Americans have a stake in ensuring that elections are conducted fairly and that the ability to exercise their right to vote isn’t impeded.