Courts & the Law, News

Get-out-the-Vote groups to court: Absentee ballot restrictions after 9th district scandal went too far

"Vote" pin

Creative Commons License

A new voting rights lawsuit was filed yesterday, this time in an effort to roll back the North Carolina General Assembly’s restrictions on the absentee voting process after a coordinated, illegal ballot scheme was uncovered in the 9th Congressional district last year.

Lawmakers passed a number of election reform measures in Senate Bill 683 in response to the voter fraud scheme perpetrated by Republican operatives, which invalidated the 2018 election in the 9th district. The lawsuit alleges the part of the law that limits who can help an absentee voter fill out their ballots and return them unfairly penalizes those who need assistance.

The lawsuit was filed by the Right to Vote Foundation, a nonprofit that makes grants to support voting rights litigation, and Advance Carolina, a Black-led nonprofit organization with a mission to build political and economic power in Black communities and institutions in North Carolina.

They argue in the suit that the new law infringes on Advance Carolina’s political speech by inhibiting its constitutionally protected right to encourage absentee voting and unfairly penalizes the African-American communities that the organization primarily serves. Before the law passed, third-party groups like Advance Carolina were able to assist voters with absentee ballot applications in support of their get-out-the-vote efforts among African-American voters, older voters and those living in rural communities.

“This law is unconstitutional and blocks North Carolina groups and voters from participating in their civic duty and must be struck down,” said Right to Vote General Counsel Marc Elias. “We will not allow Republican voter fraud to keep North Carolinians from exercising their right to vote.”

McCrae Dowless, a Republican political operative working for U.S. Congressional candidate Mark Harris paid people to help him collect, fill out and turn in absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties leading up to 2018’s midterm election. Evidence about the scheme was unveiled at a State Board of Elections hearing a little over a year ago.

Elias, at the hearing, represented 9th Congressional Democratic candidate Dan McCready. He previously was Hillary Clinton’s attorney during the 2016 presidential election.

The 19-page lawsuit filed in Wake County Superior Court states that SB 683 infringes on the core political speech and association activities of organizations and citizens working to increase voter turnout.

“‘Get-out-the-vote’ (or ‘GOTV’) efforts play an important role — particularly in North Carolina, which ranks in the bottom half of states in voter turnout as a percentage of registration — in ensuring that eligible citizens are able to exercise their right to vote and that elections fairly and truthfully ascertain the will of the people,” the document states.

SB 683 passed the General Assembly with overwhelming bipartisan support; the vote was 111-1 in the House and 49-0 in the Senate. The measure, though, also restored early voting on the last Saturday before Election Day and extended some early voting hours.

Marcus Bass, Executive Director of Advance Carolina, said he believes voters are being blamed and subsequently harmed by measures that miss the root of the cause of ballot theft in the 9th Congressional district.

“In our work across North Carolina, we have seen these changes create confusion and further impediments to our already fragile democracy,” he said.

The lawsuit asks the court to permanently enjoin the law restricting absentee ballot assistance.


Editorials: 9th District mess demands more than just a new election

Be sure to check out a couple of fine editorials published in the aftermath of last week’s State Board of Elections ruling ordering a new election in the 9th congressional district. Both make a strong case that last week’s ruling needs to be just the first step in a reform process designed to attack absentee ballot fraud.

In “A good outcome in 9th, but will future NC elections be free of fraud?,” the Charlotte Observer puts it this way:

It stands to reason that there is not widespread absentee ballot fraud in other counties because complaints would have been lodged. But North Carolinians deserve more assurance than that. Are there robust systems in place to ensure there is no fraud? Are boards of elections and district attorneys and U.S. attorneys vigilant enough?

The end of the state elections board’s hearing should not mark the end of this case. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who has been investigating Bladen County’s role in the 2016 election and in the 2018 primary, should file criminal charges against anyone who committed a felony. Among those she should look at are McCrae Dowless, the Bladen County operative who orchestrated the scheme and his stepdaughter, Lisa Britt, who confessed to likely crimes under oath during the state board’s hearing. Harris himself admitted to misstating facts under oath and to potentially violating campaign finance law.

Freeman told the News & Observer’s Ned Barnett on Friday that her investigation will expand to include the 2018 general election.

NC Policy Watch quoted elections board chairman Bob Cordle as saying he hopes voters conclude from last week’s outcome that “sometimes the law works, and sometimes government works.”

It did in this case. Now let’s make sure it does all of the time.

Meanwhile, in “New 9th District election is just the beginning,” the Fayetteville Observer points out the worrisome lack of action on the issue from multiple officials, including Trump administration U.S. Attorney, Robert Higdon:

The testimony last week, capped by Harris’ own announcement that he believed a new election is necessary, was a blow to the state Republican Party, which has pushed aggressively to have Harris seated in Congress, all the while insisting that there was no evidence indicating enough ballot fraud to reverse the results of the race. While party leaders began their defense with sober acceptance of the situation’s gravity, that approach soon yielded to shrill demands that in retrospect pin a hypocritical label on the party and its leadership.

So do the actions of Robert Higdon Jr., the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Read more


Mark Harris asks court to force certification of 9th District race

Lawyers for Mark Harris are seeking to have the disputed 9th Congressional District race certified as an investigation continues into ballot fraud in the election.

On Thursday morning Harris’ lawyers filed a writ of mandamus with the Wake County Superior Court, seeking a court order the the State Board of Elections certify his victory in November. Harris also met with investigators from the board of elections Thursday morning.

Petition for Writ of Mandamus and Appeal (Text)

The board, at the center of its own legal battle, was dissolved last week and is composition the subject of partisan gridlock.

A hearing set for January 11 has been postponed.

Harris said that uncertainty made Thursday’s filing necessary.

“Our goal is to get certified by the state of North Carolina,” Harris said. “Without a state board of elections, we’re doing it in the filing that was done today.”

On Thursday Harris told reporters he saw no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the election and no reason he would not again hire Red Dome Group, the political consulting firm at the center of the alleged ballot fraud.

Harris said he could not say whether McCrae Dowless – a convicted felon, influential political operative and Bladen County elected official who state investigators say for years ran an illegal ballot harvesting scheme – has done anything wrong.

Multiple people have now come forward to say, in interviews and sworn affidavits, that they were paid by Dowless and his associates to collect masses of absentee ballots in the district. That’s  illegal because of concerns of tampering. A close race could be turned by either forging unsealed ballots or simply failing to turn in enough of one candidate’s mail-in ballots to give another a huge advantage among those voting absentee.

Harris admits he hired Dowless, who worked closely with Red Dome Group, the political consulting firm to which Harris paid $428,908 for work in the primary and general elections. But Harris said he had no idea that Dowless may have done something illegal and Dowless himself has, through an attorney, denied any of his work broke the law.

Harris narrowly bested incumbent Rep. Robert Pittinger in the May Republican primary and then appeared to defeat Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes in the November general election.

The numbers, and Dowless’ documented history, raised suspicions.

Seven percent of the ballots cast in Bladen County were absentee mail-in ballots – the highest percentage of any the eight counties that make up the 9th District.

In the GOP primary, Harris won 96 percent of Bladen County’s mail-in ballots – an extraordinary showing against the Republican incumbent.

In the general election Harris took 61 percent of the county’s mail-in absentee vote in a race where only 19 percent of the mail-in ballots came from registered Republicans.

In order for that to happen, Harris would have to have gotten all of the mail-in absentee votes of the 19 percent of registered Republicans, nearly all of the unaffiliated voters who used that method and some of the Democrats who voted that way as well.

More than 3,400 of the mail-in absentee ballots requested by voters in the 9th District were reported unreturned, according to the state board of elections. Most of those were in Bladen and Robeson counties and can be tied to precincts with high percentages of minority voters.


Editorial rightfully blasts GOP’s “erratic,” “silly” behavior in 9th District controversy

Dallas Woodhouse

Robin Hayes

Be sure to check out this morning’s Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on — “Playground antics don’t help resolve real worries about election conduct.” The essay rightfully takes GOP bosses Dallas Woodhouse and Robin Hayes to task for their bizarre and irresponsible behavior regarding the flawed election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

The only adjective that the essay probably should have used to characterize the wacky Woodhouse/Hayes show is “Trumpian,” because most of what the pair has been saying makes about as much sense as a Trump tweet storm. Here are some on-the-mark excerpts:

The performances of North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes and the party’s Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse – amid efforts by Gov. Roy Cooper to keep state regulation of elections up and running – might easily be confused with behavior on a bad day at a pre-school child care center.

Their confrontational comments and inappropriate comportment came as a recent court order put the status of the State Board of Elections in limbo as it works to fairly and diligently handle the disputed election in the Ninth Congressional District. Hayes and Woodhouse don’t want an adult resolution. They want a schoolyard bully’s victory….

Their behavior has been erratic. In less than a month, they and other GOP leaders have: Demanded the Republican candidate Mark Harris be declared the winner; Supported a delay in certification of a winner pending a full investigation; Said the alleged improper activity tainted the Republican primary so there needed to be a full do-over and; Now, again, demanding Harris be certified the election winner.

In a silly statement Hayes said if he didn’t get his way he wouldn’t play, refusing to allow ANY Republican to take part in the interim Elections Board Democrat Cooper was forming. He took to playground name-calling.

After reminding readers of the seriousness of the allegations in the 9th District, the editorial concludes this way:

Republican leaders are emerging as a distractive sideshow to the very serious business of elections and governing. It isn’t entertaining.

It is past time for the state’s Republicans to shut down their not-ready-for-prime-time reality show. Stop the stonewalling. Stop the bullying. Join in building a North Carolina that welcomes a variety of voices and serves EVERYONE regardless of ideology or political affiliation.


Calls mount for a new election in the 9th District

There were new and powerful editorials over the weekend that lent their voices to the growing chorus demanding a new election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

The Fayetteville Observer put it this way in “Start planning a new 9th District election”:

Given the growing evidence that some ballots were tampered with and others may have been dumped and never tallied, we’re expecting the new election. And some elected Republicans are calling for a broader investigation that includes previous elections and other districts, noting that the 9th in Bladen and Robeson counties isn’t the only place where we’ve seen anomalies in absentee ballot tallies in elections that go back at least to 2010.

State elections officials have gotten complaints about such activities in the past and have forwarded the information to local law enforcement and prosecutors. But no one has investigated. Now it appears we have a sufficiently egregious case that it can’t be ignored any longer.

Good. Keep the investigations rolling and give them all the staffing they need.

And meanwhile, let’s start planning 9th District Election 2.0.

Meanwhile, the Charlotte Observer made a strong case that a new primary is necessary as well. After explaining that similar vote tampering may well have occurred in the GOP primary in which Mark Harris edged out incumbent Robert Pittenger, the Observer says this in “McCready-Harris re-do isn’t enough; start over entirely”:

So the results of the primary are as tainted as the results of the general election. The state board of elections plans to hold a hearing the week before Christmas and could order a new election. But here’s the catch: According to former General Assembly counsel Gerry Cohen, the state board can order only a new general election featuring the same three candidates. It cannot order a new primary because it already certified the primary’s results.

That leaves it up to the U.S. House to do the right thing. Republicans can’t do anything in their final weeks in the majority. Democrats take over the House on Jan. 3. They might be tempted to hold only a new general election (cloaked in a deference to state authorities) because it could help them politically. Harris has surely lost some popularity over this scandal, so a McCready-Harris rematch could be appetizing for Democrats.

But it’d be the wrong thing to do. The House, led by Democrats, on Jan. 3 should vacate the election results and order a new election with primaries. Pittenger, Harris and any other Republican would be able to file (and any Democrat). Only that would provide the entirely clean slate that 9th District voters deserve. Some have even floated the idea of just naming McCready the winner, an absurd idea.

Absent a new primary ordered by the U.S. House, the only way Pittenger or any Republican replaces Harris on the ballot is if Harris moves to another state. If that happens, Republican officials would name a replacement. But Harris would have to move, Cohen says; he can’t just decline the nomination.

(A new election could leave the seat open well into next summer, and that’s unfortunate. But Cohen reminds us that Republicans who decry a lack of representation in the 9th were silent when Rep. Mel Watt resigned from the 12th District seat in December 2013 and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory kept the seat open for 11 months rather than hold an election.)

The problems in this year’s 9th District election extended back to the primary. The response must as well.