Election fraud has been a much discussed, seldom seen phenomenon in U.S. elections over the past several decades. But new details emerging from government and media investigations into the vote-counting in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District paint a picture of a tight race where potentially illegal voter fraud could have skewed the outcome.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections has declined to certify the race, in which Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by about 900 votes in the unofficial tally. Instead, the board has begun investigating potential fraud in the district.
The Harris campaign confirmed to NPR Tuesday that it had received a subpoena for documents from the board this week. The campaign said it was reviewing the request.
While some Republicans, including President Trump, have baselessly claimed for years that in-person voter fraud is rampant, the investigation into what could be the country's most significant case of voter fraud in years centers on a vote-by-mail operation that seems to have been led by a man named Leslie McCrae Dowless.
The alleged plot
Dowless, a local political operative who was paid by a consulting firm hired by Harris, set up a "command center" in a commercial strip mall in Dublin, N.C., according to a lengthy report published by The Washington Post this week.
Jeff Smith, the building's owner, told the Post that Dowless had a crew of about a dozen workers who were knocking on doors, getting voters to request absentee ballots, and then returning to those homes and collecting the ballots.
It is against North Carolina law for anyone other than a voter or a voter's "near relative" to return an absentee ballot in the state.
Smith's telling of events to the Post matches up with what voters told NPR member station WFAE:
"One Bladenboro voter, who asked not to be named, said a volunteer came to her house repeatedly, wanting to watch and help her fill out her absentee ballot.
" 'I told them at that moment that I didn't have the time to do it right then when she wanted to,' the woman said. 'So she left. She came back again a couple days later. And I was getting ready to go out, so I didn't have time. She came back a third time, but I had already filled it out and had mailed it in. And I told her that.' "
Joe Bruno, a local TV reporter, spoke with a woman who said she was paid "$75 to $100 a week" to pick up ballots. After picking up the ballots, she said she didn't mail them — instead, she gave them to Dowless.
The Harris campaign says it "was not aware of any illegal conduct in connection with [the] 9th District race" but intends to cooperate with all investigations related to it.
In a statement issued Friday, McCready backed the investigation and said, "The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy. Any effort to rob a person of that right should be met with the full force of justice."
Adding to suspicions about the race are the vote-by-mail numbers in some counties in the district: specifically Bladen and Robeson counties, on the east side of the district, where Dowless was based.
Harris won 61 percent of the mail-in ballots in Bladen County. The problem, as noted by Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College, is that only 19 percent of the voters who voted by mail were registered Republican. So for Harris to have ended up with that 61 percent, he would have had to win almost every single unaffiliated voter and some registered Democrats, leading to questions about potential vote manipulation or tampering.
"There were some real issues and patterns that didn't seem to match up," Bitzer said. "Bladen County also had the second-highest level of nonreturned ballots in the district. So there's kind of a variety of issues going on."
The county with the highest level of nonreturned ballots was neighboring Robeson County, where nearly two-thirds of the mail-in ballots were not returned.
Even as Republican candidates suffered heavy losses in House races nationally on Election Day, as the vote-counting progressed it appeared that North Carolina Republicans had bucked the national trend and not lost any House seats, thanks in part to favorable political lines drawn by the GOP-controlled Legislature.
The suggestion that the outcome of one of those races could be tainted led Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, to allege that Democrats were trying to "steal the election" by focusing on the election fraud allegations.
"Mark Harris won more votes. He won more legal votes," Woodhouse told NPR. "And there are not enough ballots that can even possibly be in question to change the outcome of the race."
Bitzer, the political scientist, raised his voice when he heard that argument, noting a sentence in North Carolina law that rather than stipulate that the number of affected votes must cover the margin of victory says the State Board of Elections can call for a new election if "irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness."
"I don't mean to get riled up," Bitzer says, "but I've been hearing that argument for a week."
It remains unclear how many votes were affected by Dowless' operation; that number may be difficult to determine. The state's investigation is most likely focusing on whether some absentee ballots could have been destroyed or manipulated.
Congressional Democrats indicated Tuesday that they might refuse to seat Harris until "substantial" questions about the race are answered.
"If there is what appears to be a very substantial question on the integrity of the election, clearly we would oppose Mr. Harris' being seated until that is resolved," Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. Hoyer is in line to become the House Democrats' No. 2 leader next month.
Cheri Bustos, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said "there must be consequences" if there proves to be fraud.
For Democrats, the ongoing investigation in North Carolina is another example of what they say were widespread efforts by Republicans this year to suppress votes across the country, despite midterm turnout reaching 50-year highs.
And their anger about the issue shows.
"It appears increasingly likely that North Carolina Republican operatives stole a House seat," tweeted Rep. Hakeen Jeffries, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "Crickets from the Trump Administration. So here's a thought: LOCK THEM UP"