More than 700,000 North Carolinians have been without congressional representation since January.
They live in the state’s 9th congressional district, which runs along the border with South Carolina. That’s the district where Republican operatives tried to steal a congressional seat in the most brazen case of election fraud in modern U.S. history.
A quick primer: shortly after election day, with the margin separating Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Mark Harris standing at fewer than 1,000 votes, curiosities began to emerge with the absentee ballot count from one county in particular. In short order, it was revealed that Leslie McCrae Dowless, a longtime Republican operative, had organized and executed an absentee ballot scheme to siphon away votes from McCready and inflate Harris’s own vote total. For weeks, the state Board of Elections refused to certify Harris as the winner, over the strong objection of the state Republican Party.
An independent investigation into the matter ended shortly after Harris’s own son testified that his father was explicitly warned about Dowless’s history of shady election activity, and text messages emerged of the elder Harris specifically referring to Dowless’s “absentee ballot project.” The board of elections ordered a new election, and on Tuesday, Republicans will choose between 10 different candidates. McCready is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
So what’s happened in the district in the interim? Quite a lot.
For a start, campaigning for the seat began almost the minute Harris announced he wouldn’t seek the nomination again. Instead, Harris threw his support behind local conspiracy theorist Stony Rushing, a pro-gun activist who was among the staunchest supporters of Harris during the months-long investigation.
Rushing’s candidacy was followed in short order by nine other Republicans — including Fern Shubert, who compared homosexuality to pedophilia and Democrats to the Taliban, and Chris Anglin, a former Democrat who sued the state GOP for refusing to include him in party-sponsored events and forums.
But the leading candidate is State Sen. Dan Bishop, one of the original authors of North Carolina’s infamous HB-2 “bathroom bill” that targeted the state’s transgender community and cost the state at least $3.76 billion when several companies and organizations pulled their business in protest. Several recent polls show Bishop leading the field by a sizeable margin. In order to avoid a September run-off election, a candidate needs to tally at least 30% of the vote total during the primary.
Then there’s the question of election integrity. Given the recent history of felonious activity by Republicans in the district — Harris’s campaign is also accused of running a similar absentee ballot scheme during the GOP primary in 2018 — poll watchers and state officials are expected to be ultra vigilant this go-around.
Dowless, the Republican operative responsible for orchestrating the whole affair, will be nowhere near ballots on election day.
Dowless and four of his associates were arrested and indicted earlier this year for their roles in the election fraud. He has since made several court appearances, but his criminal trial has yet to begin. Dowless has pleaded not guilty, even as state investigators probe yet another election — a 2018 race for sheriff in neighboring Columbus County — in which Dowless was reportedly hired by the Republican candidate.
Mark Harris has largely faded from view since February. On the final day of testimony during the state’s inquiry, Harris abruptly endorsed the call for a new election after weeks of fighting against it, citing undisclosed “health concerns” that prevented him from coping with the “rigors” of a protracted investigation. The former pastor issued an endorsement of Rushing shortly thereafter, but has retreated into private life since then.
The final featured player in the sordid operetta is Dallas Woodhouse, the once-respected executive director of the state Republican Party. Even as the evidence of impropriety became impossible to dismiss, Woodhouse insisted that the election be certified and Harris be seated in the 116th Congress. In a matter of weeks, Woodhouse became a national laughing stock, as he put on a dizzying display of mental acrobatics to try and justify Harris as the legitimate winner of a clearly tainted election.
Last month, Woodhouse announced he would leave his position when his current contract expires in June. Though he sought to portray the parting as a unilateral decision, his tenure will be remembered for some of the biggest political scandals in recent history. In addition to his role in the 9th district race, Woodhouse was forced to testify in a case brought against his state party chairman, who allegedly funneled bribes to a state elected official and then lied to the FBI about it.
“This was always what I had in mind,” Woodhouse told the News & Record about his conveniently timed decision to leave his post.
And finally, there’s election day itself. Polls close on Tuesday evening at 7:30 p.m. EST, and the local board of elections in Bladen County is bracing for a harsh and unforgiving spotlight to be trained in its direction. But if there’s preeminent concern among election officials, it’s neither the increased media attention, nor their recent history, nor the large field of candidates they’ll have to sort through when counting the ballots.
Rather, it’s apathy.
Off-year elections already feature sharp drop-offs in voter turnout rates, but coupled with Bladen County’s recent travails, Tuesday’s primary might just be the biggest non-event in recent political history.
“[Voters] have become so cynical over the years,” Patricia Sheppard, a Bladen Board of Elections official, recently told a local public radio station. “And it’s been ‘Business as usual,’ and, ‘This has been going on for so long’ … We hear all the time from people saying, ‘I’m not going to bother voting,’ ‘My vote doesn’t count,’ ‘Somebody’s just going to steal it.’”