A New Moment for North Carolina Politics

The Mark Harris race might finally reverse the centuries-old practice of corrupt elections in the state.

Dan McCready, Democratic House candidate who is likely to win if his race against Mark Harris is rerun. Source: POLITICO

North Carolina has found itself in the national spotlight for sordid reasons yet again. The state of HB2 and Amendment 1, a 2012 same-sex marriage ban, is now the center of what looks to be one of the worst state-level election fraud scandals in years. Republican House candidate Mark Harris has been accused of hiring a contractor who stole and then destroyed Democratic absentee ballots. As a POLITICO article asked,

how did the Republican, Mark Harris, win 61 percent of the absentee-by-mail votes when Republican voters requested only 19 percent of all absentee ballots? How did he manage to win [Bladen County] at all, given the fact that it has three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans?

After news of the absentee ballots broke, the denunciations came swiftly from both parties. The state election board agreed unanimously to refuse certification of the election even though Harris had originally won by over 900 votes. Debts from the Harris campaign to the rogue operative in question surfaced on official documents. Then, it became clear that Harris had likely also scammed his Republican primary opponent, Robert Pittenger. Democrats and Republicans across the country denounced Harris, and Harris’s opponent withdrew his concession. Harris said he would be open to a new election “if the state finds alleged ballot irregularities affected the election result.”

More than likely, North Carolina will hold its congressional election again. Harris will be forced by state law to stay on the ballot, and his opponent, Dan McCready, has a good chance of winning. While the corruption inherent in this election seems exceptional, winning through underhanded tactics is an established political strategy in North Carolina politics. The more exceptional aspect of this episode is not that fraud occurred in a North Carolina election, but that someone may actually be punished for it.

North Carolina politics have been fraught and conflicted for centuries. In the years before the Civil War, North Carolina was a slave state with a vastly lower slave population than many of its neighbors. Unlike neighboring states, where one aristocratic group was in charge, North Carolina’s interest groups were more balanced. These circumstances resulted in an exceptionally strong anti-aristocratic movement, and when the planter-aristocrats stepped up to crush their opponents they did so with widespread violence. This unique situation was a reason why the state was the site of the nation’s only civic coup d’etat, when anti-aristocratic (and biracial) leaders were overthrown and evicted from Wilmington in 1898.

North Carolina’s politics were just as charged throughout the 20th century. The state had a larger number of liberal leaders than any other former Confederate state. Governors W. Kerr Scott and Terry Sanford made significant progress against rural poverty, illiteracy, and racial discrimination. Democratic Governor Jim Hunt served four terms from the 1970s to the 1990s. The governorship has been under Democratic control for longer in the 21st century than any other southern state except Virginia.

These North Carolina liberals achieved success despite the constant efforts of conservatives to cheat, steal, and demagogue in order to win state elections. 20th century corruption gained traction in 1920, when Cameron Morrison defeated O. Max Gardner by running on white supremacy and stealing absentee ballots. Willis Smith also used white supremacy and dirty tricks to defeat liberal stalwart Frank Porter Graham in the 1950 U.S. Senate special election, a strategy that Jesse Helms updated for his 1990 Senate run. While white supremacy was not a stated goal in 2016, the same commitment to underhanded tactics was a hallmark of the Republican General Assembly as it stripped power from incoming Governor Roy Cooper in a special session. In all of these instances, chicanery was used because it was successful. Jesse Helms, who helped designed and run Smith’s 1950 campaign as well as his own, still holds the record as the longest serving senator in North Carolina history. Even the 2016-era General Assembly remained in power after the 2018 midterm elections.

The Mark Harris race will not change the contentious nature of North Carolina politics. Roy Cooper and the Republican General Assembly will continue to fight, and conservatives will continue to engage in questionable election practices. But after this election cycle, especially if Harris loses, there will be a precedent that election fraud has consequences. Unlike Helms and Smith before him, a perpetrator of North Carolina election fraud may finally face punishment. The state’s politics will never be the same.