North Carolina election fraud case evokes a history of U.S. election scandals (UPDATE)

With Donald Trump’s campaign support, Republican Mark Harris thought he was a winner in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. But his victory is on hold in the face of charges of absentee vote tampering.

What looks more and more like blatant election fraud in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District is being seen as a case of how to steal an election. But that wouldn’t be the first time in American history that such outright election fraud had occurred.

Despite the constant screeching by Donald Trump and other Republicans about the virtually non-existent “problem” of voter fraud, Republicans are now faced with a juicy scandal involving the alleged stealing of votes via absentee ballots. Working on behalf of Mark Harris, the Republican “winner,” (the state board of elections has refused to certify the results) was Leslie McCrae Dowless, a local Republican operative with a criminal history of these kinds of shenanigans. Dowless oversaw a crew of workers who collected absentee ballots from voters, even though such ballot collections are illegal in North Carolina.

Harris (who, by the way, is a former Baptist minister) earned an inordinate amount of votes from absentee ballots, especially in rural Bladen County, which seems to have the strongest evidence of vote tampering. “Only 19 percent of mail-in absentee voters were registered Republicans, yet 62 percent of those ballots went the Republican way,” said a Washington Post story praising the shoe-leather local journalism that uncovered the details of the scandal.

There are only 905 votes separating Harris and Democrat Dan McCready. Besides the possibility of vote tampering, there are charges that some of the collected absentee ballots, especially those from African-Americans and Native Americans, never got delivered.

North Carolina election officials are investigating the possible election fraud. There are calls for a do-over election, and Democrats in the House are threatening not to seat Harris in January until the state investigations are over and the issues are resolved and even hold their own hearings. Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, now says he is open to holding a new election, although instead of the obvious election fraud, he’s giving early voting as the excuse. Democrat McReady has withdrawn his concession, and he and his staff are gearing up for a possible new election. Even Harris now says he would agree to a new election if evidence of election fraud affected the outcome.

But such dishonesty is not new. This is not voter fraud, this is election fraud. And there are instances of election fraud throughout U.S. history, going back to the time of the founders.

A story in Slate, with details from Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition — 1742-2004, by historian Tracy Campbell, offers some tidbits:

George Washington won his seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758 by spending 40 pounds on booze for his neighbors. The passage of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780 appears to have been the work of election thefts, concluded historian Samuel Eliot Morison in 1916. In the early days of the Union, Whigs encouraged passage of registry laws “since they felt Democrats resorted to importing voters in a large number of elections,” Campbell notes. Democrats, of course, opposed registry laws because they discriminated against citizens who had recently relocated. In one Michigan city, Republicans co-opted a registry law by declaring scores of Democrats as improperly registered and allowing Republicans, “registered or not,” to vote.

A compilation of some of the most infamous — and downright weird — instances of U.S. election fraud was put together by the website Grunge, whose mission seems to be putting together odd facts. Here are just a few examples.

The Know-Nothing riot and rigged election of 1856. The Know-Nothing Party came into existence not because its members were ignorant; they merely promised to say, “I know nothing but my country” during an interrogation. The men who founded the party, also called the American Party, were xenophobes and nativists who looked down on recent immigrants (hmm … sounds familiar). Besides boasting eight governors, five senators and 43 congressmen, the Know-Nothings took over Baltimore politics in the 1850s, preventing newly naturalized citizens from voting or forcing them to choose Know-Nothing candidates.

By the time of the municipal election of 1856, there was open violence between political factions. There were actual riots on Election Day in October as partisans attacked with other with guns, axes, picks, and bricks. Several people were killed in the Know-Nothing riot, and scores more were injured. The winner of the election was the Know-Nothing candidate Thomas Swann, whose victory by a margin of 9,000 votes was not seen as legitimate. Swann’s victory that year and subsequent years were always accompanied by violence and accusations of vote-rigging.

Tammany Hall’s “cheat machine.” For more than a century, the Democratic New York City political machine of Tammany Hall earned the loyalty — and the votes — of New York’s expanding immigrant population by promising them jobs, places to live, and citizenship. But Tammany Hall counted on more than immigrants to keep their candidates in power. According to the Slate story:

Tammany Hall “imported inmates from the Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary to vote in Democratic wards” in an 1843 contest. Tammany was known to employ “floaters” who cast multiple ballots, “thugs” who intimated opposition voters, and “colonizers,” illegal voters who could be summoned from another city or state to swell the registration rolls at the last minute and throw a close election.

The ballot box with the hidden secret compartment. In the early days of San Francisco in the 1850s, the city’s political machine was controlled by a Democratic political operative named David Broderick, who had cut his electoral teeth on Tammany Hall methods. Besides employing thugs to “persuade” voters and handing out lucrative political jobs to his cronies (from which he collected part of their salaries), Broderick guaranteed his electoral wins with a special ballot box with a false bottom that could hold any amount of votes deemed necessary to guarantee a win. Extra ballots could be released into the main compartment by moving a hidden panel.

By 1856, local residents, angered by political corruption and the killing of a crusading newspaper editor, formed what was called the Second Committee of Vigilance to take back power. They found the infamous ballot box in the home of a local Democrat and delivered their own form of vigilante justice, rounding up some 25 of Broderick’s political hacks, giving them a swift “trial” on charges of political fraud and ballot-box stuffing, and sending them off on ships in San Francisco Harbor.

Broderick, however, became a U.S. senator from California.

To my mind, though, the truly weirdest story of election fraud is from Oregon.

The cult that tried to prevent people from voting — through food poisoning. In the 1980s, a religious cult (and we’re using the term loosely) led by a charismatic figure named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was kicked out of India and settled in a rural section of northeastern Oregon. The 2,300 or so Rajneeshees, as the mystic’s red-, orange-, and purple-clad followers were called, settled into a 64,000-acre ranch in Wasco County, incorporating their new supposed utopia as Rajneeshpuram. The Rajneeshees (also called sannyasins) believed in peace, free love, and, apparently, lots of sex.

The nearby small town of Antelope objected to the new and growing enclave, especially as the Rajneeshees plotted to take over Antelope and the county government in an attempt to fight Oregon land-use laws that hampered their expansion. As elections approached, cult leaders decided to spread salmonella-laced liquid at salad bars in local restaurants to try to keep voters away from the polls. Some 750 people were sickened. The cult also bused in some 2,300 homeless people from cities across the country to swell the voting rolls—a tactic that didn’t go unnoticed by local officials. Ultimately, the cult collapsed, some leaders went to jail, and the Bhagwan went back to India.

There are many more sordid details about this strange chapter in Oregon’s history, involving the Rajneeshees’ attempting to murder state officials, wiretapping, setting fire to a country planning office, and more. A complete five-part series of the cult’s time in Oregon ran in The Oregonian. The story of the cult also was told in a recent Netflix docuseries called Wild, Wild Country.

And I thought the Chicago mantra of “vote early and often” was bad.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Dec. 9, 2018.

UPDATE: It took a while, with days and days of hearings, but the North Carolina Board of Elections has ordered a new election for the 9th Congressional District. Here are the dates: There will be primaries on May 14. If no candidates receive at least 30 percent of the vote, there will be runoffs on Sept. 10, with a general election on Nov. 5. If no runoffs are needed, the general election will be Sept. 10.

But one name won’t be on the ballot: Mark Harris. The Republican says he will not run in the new election — likely he figures his name is so tainted that he would lose anyway. Democrat Dan McCready, however, is ready for another round.

NEW UPDATE: After the May 14 primary, McCready is again the Democratic candidate, having run unopposed. The GOP primary winner is state Sen. Dan Bishop, who received 48 percent of the vote, thus negating the need for another runoff. McCready and Bishop will face off on Sept. 10, the same date as municipal primaries in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Bishop is best known as one of the authors of the so-called “bathroom bill” that voided anti-discrimination protections in Charlotte for LGBT people and directed transgender people to use public bathrooms and showers that matched their birth gender.

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