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Fraud allegations jolt election results in key North Carolina race

There's still a possibility that state board of elections could throw out the tainted results from North Carolina's 9th and order a new election.
An election worker checks a voter's drivers license as North Carolina's controversial \"Voter ID\" law goes into effect for the state's presidential primary election at a polling place, March 15, 2016,  in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by Chris Keane/Reuters)
An election worker checks a voter's drivers license as North Carolina's controversial \"Voter ID\" law goes into effect for the state's presidential primary election at a polling place, March 15, 2016,  in Charlotte, N.C. 

Up and down the Atlantic coast, this year's midterm elections brought up significant changes in nearly every state. The exception was North Carolina, where, thanks to Republican gerrymandering, Republicans received roughly 50% the vote, but ended up with roughly 77% of the power.

The rigged electoral system in the Tar Heel State all but guaranteed that North Carolinians wouldn't have any interesting U.S. House races at all -- or so we thought.

The only contest that appeared even remotely competitive was in the state's 9th congressional district, where former far-right pastor Mark Harris (R) managed to pull off an upset over an incumbent congressman in a Republican May primary, and where Harris apparently won a very close contest on Election Day over Dan McCready (D). The Republican's record of highly provocative rhetoric, especially about women and religious minorities, made his candidacy one of the nation's most controversial, but local voters, by a 905-vote margin, elected him anyway.

Except, maybe they didn't.

The first sign of trouble emerged last week, when the state board of elections unanimously agreed not to certify the results, citing what one board member described as "unfortunate activities." As the Washington Post  reported, we're starting to understand what those "activities" allegedly entailed.

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has collected at least six sworn statements from voters in rural Bladen County, near the South Carolina border, who described people coming to their doors and urging them to hand over their absentee ballots, sometimes without filling them out. Others described receiving absentee ballots by mail that they had not requested.Among the allegations is that an individual who worked for the Harris campaign coordinated an effort to collect and fill in, or discard, the ballots of Democratic voters who might have otherwise voted for McCready. Several of the affidavits come from elderly African American voters. It is illegal to take someone else's ballot, whether to turn it in or discard it.Officials are also examining unusually high numbers of absentee ballots cast in some precincts in the 9th District -- and unusually high numbers of ballots requested but never returned.

The Raleigh News & Observer had a related report on Friday, closely examining the data, including the unusually high number of requested mail-in ballots that went unreturned in minority communities.

Wait, it gets worse.

As the process has unfolded in recent days, there's been fresh scrutiny of Harris' primary victory over Rep. Robert Pittenger, in which the primary challenger received an unrealistically high percentage (96%) of the absentee ballots cast in North Carolina's Bladen County.

Given the scope and volume of suspected irregularities, election experts have painted a discouraging picture. FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver wrote on Twitter, "The fact that there are also extremely weird anomalies involving absentee ballots in the NC-9 Republican primary makes it less likely that there's any sort of innocent explanation for the irregularities in the NC-9 general election. The simplest explanation for these irregularities is that someone associated with the [Harris] campaign committed fraud involving absentee-by-mail ballots in both the primary and the general. I'm open to other explanations, but I haven't heard any yet."

NBC News and the Associated Press, among other outlets, had called last month's congressional race for Harris, but in light of the latest allegations, those calls have been retracted.

Harris, predictably, is insisting that state officials certify his election, but there's no reason to think that'll happen anytime soon. On the contrary, there's still a possibility that state officials could throw out the tainted results and order a new election.

Postscript: As luck would have it, Republicans in North Carolina's state legislature, claiming to be panicked by the prospect of in-person voter fraud, are currently scrambling to pass a new voter-ID law. It's the kind of law that would be meaningless in addressing the possibility of mail-in voter fraud, which is at the heart of the concerns in the 9th district.

The irony is extraordinary: after years of ridiculous whining about fraud, we appear to have finally uncovered a congressional race in which fraud may have dictated the outcome. In this case, however, the alleged fraud was perpetrated by Republicans, and the Republicans' proposed solution would be entirely irrelevant.