Fair elections aren’t normally considered to be a “sexy” political topic. But rather than relying on what media gatekeepers tell us we should care about, citizens need to call out – and push back against – any red-flags that arise in terms of how our elections are run.
Amid the higher-profile races during the 2018 midterm cycle, there was one congressional race that seemed to fly under the radar – until it was too late. Vying to win North Carolina’s 9th District in the U.S. House of Representatives in the General Election, Charlotte-based pastor Mark Harris – who had primaried out three-term incumbent Robert Pittenger during the May 2018 Republican primary – eked out a 905-vote margin over Marine veteran and entrepreneur Dan McCready, by a hair.
Or did he?
This congressional race could have otherwise been written off as an unusually-narrow contest. The tabulated ballots gave Harris a 49.3% popular victory over McCready’s 48.9%. That’s a difference of 0.4%, with Libertarian nominee Jeff Scott receiving 1.8% (approximately 5,000 votes).
But then, some rather alarming reports emerged from North Carolinians who’d actually worked on elections within the 9th District. Bladen County voter Datesha Montgomery issued a sworn affidavit alleging she had given her unsealed absentee ballot to a woman who came to her doorstep claiming to collect them for the county; Montgomery recalls the woman instructing her to complete her candidate choices and assure her that she would complete the absentee ballot’s remaining fields. A second voter, Emma Shipman from the town of Tar Heel, made similar claims.
In response, presumed victor Harris publicly stated:
Make no mistake: I support any efforts to investigate allegations of irregularities and/or voter fraud, as long as it is fair and focuses on all political parties. But, to date, there is absolutely no public evidence that there are enough ballots in question to affect the outcome of this race. Accordingly, the Board should act immediately to certify the race while continuing to conduct their investigation. Anything else is a disservice to the people of the Ninth District.
Meanwhile, more accounts of election shenanigans surfaced. Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., a political operative working for the Harris campaign, came under fire for his previously unexamined past record of tax evasion, forgery, and insurance fraud. Two low-level election workers, Cheryl Kinlaw and Ginger Eason, testified in court that Dowless had paid them to collect ballots – which both women were instructed to surrender to Dowless himself, after he’d paid them small fees for their legwork out in the district.
This led to suspicion that Dowless may have engaged in “ballot harvesting” – hiring workers to illegally pose as county employees so they could attempt to collect absentee mail-in ballots (in person) from unaware voters. The implication would be that “ballot harvesters” could alter or destroy absentee ballots in favor of the candidate who employed them. Such allegations were confirmed in court affidavits by Jeffrey S. Smith, when recalling the role Dowless had played in the November 2014 election of Jim McVicker in the race for Bladen County Sheriff (at the recommendation of Landon Bordeaux, the county’s Republican Party chairman).
Although Republican operatives echoed the sentiment that the margin between Harris and McCready was mathematically insignificant, the North Carolina board of elections voted 7 to 2 that investigations into the allegations must continue…and no results would be certified until the Board could reach a resolution. Of the seven Board members who voted against the immediate certification of Harris: four of them were Democrats, two of them were Republicans, and one of them was an Independent.
This left the 9th District congressional seat itself officially vacant once the new Congress was sworn in on January 3, 2019. As the investigation continued into the new year, additional irregularities were found.
Two poll workers, Coy Mitchell Edwards and Agnes Willis, recalled in sworn testimony having prematurely tabulated early voting results in 2018. Another woman, Lisa Britt, testified that Dowless had paid her to manipulate incomplete absentee ballots she’d collected on his behalf throughout the district.
But perhaps the most damning testimony arose from the son of Mark Harris: on February 20, John Harris recalled during court testimony how he’d warned his father not to hire Dowless, based on the operative’s sketchy reputation. Among the evidence was an email where Judge Marion Warren had been approached to link the Harris campaign with Dowless; Warren and the elder Harris presumably suspected that Dowless could propel the 2018 Harris campaign over the top, following the role Dowless had played working for third-placer Todd Johnson during the June 2016 congressional primary between Harris, Johnson, and then-incumbent Pittenger. Their assumption was most likely that Harris could have won that summer primary against Pittenger if he’d scooped up Dowless as a campaign operative before Johnson had. Andy Yates, a key Harris campaign consultant, swore up-and-down that, if he’d known Dowless had a criminal record, he would’ve pushed for Dowless to be removed from the campaign.
Mark Harris himself claimed that he first encountered Dowless in a local furniture store and later chose to hire Dowless based on the operative’s positive reputation amongst local Republican peers. However, during this past February’s investigation, Harris retracted his own earlier testimony while under oath – insisting that he has memory problems in the aftermath of two sepsis-fueled strokes he’d suffered. Harris also made the announcement that he would decline to run again in the special election for the 9th District’s vacant seat – avoiding the prospect of a direct rematch against Dan McCready.
That begs the question: if Mark Harris was in such dire health, why was he so willing to serve as his party’s November 2018 congressional nominee in the General Election – right up until these fraudulent activities made headlines?
Furthermore, when analyzing the election results, Catawba College political science professor J. Michael Bitzer saw abnormalities in the vote margins gained by Harris throughout Bladen County along with an exceptionally high volume of unreturned absentee ballots within the district.
At any rate, the special election to finally fill this seat will be held in either September or November of this year. Dan McCready is the only announced candidate on the Democratic side, while, after Harris bowed out, ten different candidates have declared their intent to run in the Republican primary. The most well-known of these potential GOP nominees include state senator Dan Bishop and former state assemblywoman Fern Schubert.
Without a doubt, the absentee voters who allowed themselves to be bamboozled by the Dowless Machine were indeed gullible. That doesn’t change the reality that Dowless shouldn’t be given a free pass for engaging in such illegal activities to begin with – let alone how it’s logically unlikely that none of the Bladen County Republicans had any knowledge whatsoever of Dowless’s criminal past (even if we accept the shaky premise that the Harris team failed to properly vet Dowless, beforehand).
I will openly admit that I was biased in favor of Dan McCready before any of this became public. Being one of so few candidates who actually bother to place agri-sustainability in their platforms, McCready was originally one of The REGIS Initiative’s state/federal #AgriWarriors during the 2018 midterms – our 77 endorsed candidates who’ve prioritized the objective of protecting and strengthening America’s food supply. So, obviously, I’m hoping McCready emerges victorious this autumn.
But even if I didn’t already have that personal attachment to his candidacy, an objective look at this race would suggest that the razor-thin 905-vote difference in the General Election – coupled with the illegal actions of Dowless leading up to last November – implicates the Mark Harris “victory” as highly suspect. Furthermore, the 9th District’s “Dowless Disgrace” isn’t just a stain on North Carolina politics – it also could be reflective of more disturbing election trends nationwide. In how many other races for statewide, federal, and local offices have tight elections resulted in an illegitimate victory for one candidate due to undiscovered rigging by that candidate’s campaign?
Where else in our country have copious other Mark Harrises – regardless of their individual political affiliations – slid into office due to the illegal actions from members of “their team”…essentially ignored or overlooked simply because the national climate happened to be less contentious at the time, or because those elections occurred in sleepy enclaves?
Whereas Democratic candidates have been accused of “cooking the books” in urban hubs, there could be a plethora of rural or suburban elections handed over to Republican victors when the GOP has institutional control and decision-making power over those elections.
The solution should be massive federal reform in terms of achieving clean elections. Absentee ballots should be counted through a very specific process made widely transparent to the public. Paper ballots should universally be an option for voters who don’t want to risk having their votes “flipped” or deleted by dubious electronic voting machines (especially those with no verifiable paper trails). Boards and commissions appointed to oversee elections must, at the very least, be populated by individuals who have no overt partisan memberships. Our modern-day failings of the bipartisan (not “nonpartisan,” as they deceptively claim to be) Commission on Presidential Debates clearly illustrates that.
Last month, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cited the Mark Harris case in a weak ruse to accuse Democrats of failing to protect voters against election fraud. Yet, it was a member of McConnell’s own party who’d enabled this likely November 2018 ballot theft in North Carolina…and the Republican-controlled North Carolina state legislature had done nothing to prevent it. Furthermore, McConnell himself has torpedoed Democratic efforts in Congress to put sweeping election reform on the legislative docket. When asked why he opposed attempts from Democrats to address the very problem Senator McConnell was citing, McConnell justified his power to stymie Democratic election reform legislation by replying, “Because I get to decide what we vote on.”
In other words: Senator McConnell is trying to shift blame of this problem onto the Democrats without being willing to do anything that would actually solve the problem. And he thinks it’s going to go unnoticed or unchallenged! Give the American people more credit than that, Mitch.
Dan McCready wasn’t the first candidate whose political aspirations were hijacked by those intentionally trying to manipulate an election in their favor. And, unless we vocally shame and punish the “vote-harvesters” who engage in such criminal actions, he won’t be the last.