After a long election season, there is just one House race where the result remains in serious doubt: North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District. The state’s Board of Elections has refused to certify the narrow 905-vote lead that the Republican, Mark Harris, holds over the Democrat, Dan McCready, and is investigating allegations of absentee ballot fraud.
A variety of evidence is consistent with an absentee ballot-harvesting scheme in Bladen and Robeson Counties; that is, a coordinated effort to persuade voters to return their absentee ballots, possibly unsealed, to paid operatives who may have then changed or discarded them.
In sworn affidavits, voters say people went door to door to offer to return their mail absentee ballots, which is illegal under North Carolina law. (Ballots must be either mailed or delivered in person by the voter or a near relative of the voter.) Multiple voters say they returned their ballots unsealed or even blank.
One woman who helped collect ballots, Ginger Eason, told a local news station that she was paid to collect the ballots and didn’t actually return those ballots to the state. Instead, she said she gave them to L. McCrae Dowless Jr., a Harris campaign contractor.
The state’s extensive voter data, which is among the best in the country, is consistent with the pattern of conduct described.
Bladen and Robeson Counties had unusually high numbers of absentee ballot requests. They also had unusually high numbers of voters who didn’t return their absentee ballots. Put it together, and the two counties stand out for anomalously high numbers of voters who requested ballots and never voted.
The results themselves are also consistent with the possibility that the anomalies in absentee ballots had an effect on the outcome of the election. That’s because throughout the Ninth District, Mr. McCready did an average of 30 points better in the mailed absentee votes than in votes cast in person. Bladen is the only county where Mr. McCready did worse in the mail absentee vote, and Robeson was the county where Mr. McCready had the smallest overperformance, at just six points. The political and demographic characteristics of the returned absentee vote in Robeson and Bladen Counties don’t look unusually Republican.
But it’s hard to assess the magnitude of the effect on the result.
For illustrative purposes, one could assume that voters should have returned ballots at the same rate as everywhere else (which would add several hundred absentee votes to the total), and assume that the overall absentee vote would have been 30 points more Democratic than the non-absentee vote, as was the case in the rest of the district. This back-of-the-envelope estimate would yield a net of 700 votes for Mr. McCready, erasing most of Mr. Harris’s 905-vote lead.
But it must be emphasized that this is nothing more than a rough estimate for illustrative purposes. The rate of absentee ballot return and Democratic strength varied greatly from county to county. Using this approach to estimate what the absentee vote would be in other counties would often be off by enough to have a fairly different picture of this race, which was the third closest of all the U.S. House contests in 2018.
There are several counties where the absentee ballot return rate and Democratic absentee overperformance were high enough that Mr. McCready could have netted 900 additional votes (say, Union County) or where he would have netted only a couple of hundred votes (say, Scotland County) in guessing the outcome using the same assumptions described above for Bladen and Robeson.
It’s hard to say what is more remarkable: that such a small anomaly can be seen in the voting pattern, or that it’s so hard to tell whether this was decisive in the race.
In other states, a similar pattern could be much harder to notice. That’s because North Carolina has better publicly available election data than just about anywhere else. Bladen and Robeson Counties are only one-seventh of the Ninth, and North Carolina’s mail absentee vote is small as a share of the overall vote. A few hundred ballots stand out in such a small pool. It would be much harder to detect if such an effort had been spread over the whole district, or if the mail absentee votes were a larger share of votes cast, as is the case in many states.