Opinion

GOP greets North Carolina election scandal with crickets, excuses and misdirection

Hypocrisy is too mild a word for Republican about-face on vote fraud

Republican Mark Harris, left, will not run in the do-over of the election in North Carolina’s 9th District. Above, Harris campaigns with North Carolina Rep. Ted Budd in Charlotte last October. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images file photo)

[OPINION] CHARLOTTE, N.C. — America might know the name of the next president before voters in North Carolina’s 9th District have a representative in the House.

OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration.

But one sure thing is that Mark Harris, the Republican who thought he won last fall, attended an orientation for new members of Congress and was picking out an office — won’t be the new congressman. He cited health reasons in taking himself out of the race that has no end in sight.

The GOP, known for relentlessly pursuing voting restrictions to prevent practically nonexistent in-person voter fraud, has been pretty silent about this all-too-real, high-profile case of probable election fraud that benefited a Republican.

And that is not an exaggeration, or very surprising.

The scandal that has, again, moved North Carolina into the political spotlight — and not in a good way — is far from over, as the State Board of Elections has called for a new election. In this case that means running a new primary and general election, which extends this undecided race into the fall.

In the latest developments, the Wake County district attorney announced Wednesday that McCrae Dowless, the political operative and ex-felon at the center of the case, had been indicted on charges related to his collection of absentee ballots during elections in 2018 and 2016. Others involved in the operation also could face charges.

Ah, North Carolina politics — at worst criminal, at best ridiculous.

Also watch: What race ratings really mean and how we create them

A question of priorities

So why do Republicans rush to pass laws to prevent ineligible voters showing up at the polls while staying mum about actual election fraud that causes a rare do-over of a House race? Hypocrisy is too mild a word.

In North Carolina, the fight to establish a law requiring certain types of voter ID and more obstacles that data show are particularly onerous for minorities, young people, the elderly and the poor has dragged on for years. The latest iteration is being challenged by multiple lawsuits, while a previous one was tossed out by the courts for targeting African-American voters with “almost surgical precision.”

Despite previous clues about illegal goings-on with absentee ballots in two North Carolina counties, it took a close result in a November contest between former Baptist pastor Harris and Democrat Dan McCready to begin this latest investigation. (The district may not even exist in the future because the state’s gerrymandered map is also being contested.)

Testimony in the case was dramatic with a whiff of family tragedy when John Harris, 29, the former candidate’s son and assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, said in the public hearing that he had warned his father about Dowless’ reputation and had told him “collecting absentee ballots was a felony.” It contradicted the recollection of his father, who soon after called for a new election, backed up by a unanimous bipartisan vote by the board.

It was only last October at a rally in Charlotte that Harris stood side by side with and spoke eloquently of Donald Trump, who reciprocated with a hearty endorsement. When asked about this latest scandal, Trump quickly deflected to what he has said are Democrat-orchestrated voting irregularities. He also resorted to the “both sides” rhetoric that marked his response to the white nationalist and neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer.

It’s about what you would expect from a president whose Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, searching for folks putting on hats and fake noses to vote as different people and all the “illegals” who supposedly gave Hillary Clinton her popular vote win in 2016, was disbanded for lack of evidence of any such thing.

In another astonishing example of “Who do you believe, me or your lying eyes?” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the North Carolina case was proof that the GOP’s cries of voter fraud were true after all. However, McConnell failed to mention that the impersonation craziness Republican-sponsored voter ID bills would stop hardly ever happens, while absentee ballot shenanigans, far easier to pull off, are mostly untouched by the GOP.

Not even the wily Senate majority leader was able to pull off that jiujitsu move.

If Republicans in Washington were serious about the issue, they would engage in a debate on the first bill proposed by House Democrats this session, which takes up anti-corruption and ethics reform and voting rights provisions. But McConnell has said: “That’s not going to go anywhere.”

Approaching redo

Back in North Carolina, you would think the expected scrutiny would be incentive enough to run a squeaky clean new race, or to lead to a temporary end to toxic ends-justify-the-means electioneering.

So what is happening next?

Democrat McCready, as expected, is running again; his campaign and the DNC are reaching out to donors inside and outside the state. “It’s about our democracy. That’s why we’re still fighting,” he tweeted.

In the GOP primary, Harris has endorsed Stony Rushing, a county commissioner in Union County, a socially conservative Republican stronghold. Rushing, who has proved to be a huge vote-getter in Union, is the owner of Take Aim Training Range, across the border in South Carolina, which offers classes and sells firearms. On his Facebook page, under an American flag, he posted: “Dan McCready and his establishment friends just threw ALL of our ballots in the Trash! What are We Going to Do About IT?”

Expect more Republicans to join the fray, though Robert Pittenger, the former congressman beaten by Harris in their GOP primary last year (also under suspicious, though as yet unproven circumstances) has said he’s not interested.

Can you blame him?

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.