The text from the conversation is below, condensed somewhat and reworded where necessary. Given the length of the transcript, please forgive any errors.
Kirk Kovach: I’m Kirk Kovach, I’m here with PoliticsNC. We’re in Salisbury, NC with Professor Michael Bitzer, and we just wanted to briefly unpack what’s happening in the 9th Congressional District. So, in a nutshell, because it’s a lot, could you sort of lay out what’s going on out there?
Michael Bitzer: Well, we’re basically talking about the most competitive congressional election in the state turning into the most contested congressional outcome. We’re looking at over 280,000 votes cast, a margin of victory of 905 for Republican Mark Harris over Democratic candidate Dan McCready, and there are some real issues coming out of the Ninth Congressional District. Particularly right now from Bladen County, but also potentially Robeson, there could be some other spillover effects out of other counties about absentee by mail votes, and questions about return rates, questions about whether voters had their ballots manipulated by harvesters, collectors, however you want to describe them, and it has turned into a real question about, I would say, the integrity of, can we be assured that these results are truly reflective, and we’re not necessarily talking about voter fraud, I think we’re talking about election fraud, and we can talk a little more about the difference between the two.
KK: So, what you pointed out is the crux of all this, the absentee ballots. That’s at question. I know you’ve done extensive analysis on your blog about this, but could you sort of describe what’s weird about Bladen, and maybe, to some degree, Robeson county.
MB: So we’ve got two major opportunities for absentee voting. One is in-person, and the vast majority of people tend to take that route. They tend to show up, cast their ballot, leave early before election day. Usually, anywhere between 2 to 4% of an electorate will be absentee by mail, and certainly campaigns use that as a mechanism to at least get people aware of the election, go ahead and make a request for an absentee ballot by mail, and then if you find yourself unable to show up in person, you can still cast a ballot. What we typically tend to see statewide, and in 2018, about 16% statewide of people who requested absentee by mail ballots did not return one, for whatever reason. Could be they got busy, got shoved it into the desk, misplaced it, whatever. But in the Ninth Congressional District, that non-return rate was 24%. So, that was actually the highest congressional district non-return rate. Then you dive into the counties. Robeson had a 62% non-return rate, and Bladen had a 40% non-return rate. And so, either, people were just doing mass requests of absentee by mail ballots and not returning them, maybe that’s what was happening. But those were just too signifiant in terms of the anomalies. In seven out of the eight counties, McCready won the absentee by mail ballots, and he won those significantly. In most elections, Republicans dominate with absentee by mail, Democrats tend to dominate with absentee in person, one-stop. But in the Ninth, seven counties went for Dan McCready in absentee by mail, except for one, and that was Bladen. Mark Harris got 61% of the vote of absentee by mail ballots in Bladen. I then dug a little deeper to see who these voters were casting ballots for this method. In that county, 19% of the voters were registered Republicans. So you get a final result of 61% Republican, but only 19% of that electorate was registered Republican. Yeah, they’re gonna vote for their candidate, but that means, that’s another 40 points to get to the level of how Mark Harris performed.
KK: That’s like every unaffiliated voter, a couple of Democrats.
MB: 38% were unaffiliated, so that means every one of those unaffiliated voters voted Republican, 3 or 4% of Democrats crossing over, which could happen, it’s a rural county. But that was the big signal to me that something’s up here.
KK: Right, and there’s something I’ve seen pointed out by more national observers, that North Carolina is very good for transparency in the way the election results are presented.
MB: Remarkably so, yes.
KK: And that it would be more of a concern in other states, maybe like Alabama or Georgia, that this could be happening elsewhere and you just wouldn’t know because we don’t have as good data as we have in North Carolina.
MB: Right. The state board of elections and the county board of elections, let me just say, they do phenomenal jobs with what they have to work with. And you want sunshine in this most core component of a democratic republic. voting is the essential cornerstone of our system, and having that kind of transparency really gives an assuredness to the electoral system.
KK: And so when you dug into those results about the percentages of which party returned, I know you also tackled a little bit of how different races returned the results, and I think I remember seeing that those were a little off a bit as well.
MB: They were, particularly in comparison to both the district as a whole for Bladen County and Robeson County as well as for the state. Now, white voters tended to have a slightly higher accepted return rate, meaning that you fill out an absentee by mail ballot, but you have to do certain things to ensure that that ballot is guaranteed, and then the board will review it and decide whether to accept it or not. And so, whites had typically a higher accepted rate, blacks and particularly Native Americans, tended to have a higher non-return rate. That may be just the fact of, there’s a mass campaign on the ground, request your ballot, or folks just chose not to.
KK: And when there is so much focus on a specific race like this, it bears digging into every single possible facet of it. Well, you said something there about some of the hoops you have to jump to return an absentee ballot, and I think WSOC reported how some of the people involved in this alleged fraud, there were a few people who had been the signatories for a ton of ballots, and that doesn’t happen.
MB: That doesn’t happen without concerted effort, shall we say. This is not coincidence. And several of those same names as witness 1 and witness 2 were on many of the ballots. So that obviously sends a signal that something was going on with this small group of individuals helping voters to get their ballots prepared for delivery. Or, perhaps, aiding in the supposed return of those ballots, and that’s another question that’s out there.
KK: Well, that’s something that you had said in one of your blog posts, well, it could be this innocuous reason or this innocuous reason, but after you have a couple coincidences like that well, ok, if it smells fishy it’s probably fishy.
MB: If there’s a pattern that emerges, and I’m a political scientist, I’m a historian, I look for patterns in numbers. Coincidence can happen, but when it’s repeated —
KK: There’s a lot of coincidences.
MB: — there’s a lot of coincidences turning into patterns.
KK: So one contentious part of this, and this is where people will sort of slip into the partisan sides of the argument. I know Dallas Woodhouse has said, even if there’s fraudulent votes, there aren’t enough to flip this election, someone pointed out, and it might have been you as well, well that’s not necessarily true. So part of this is, yes, maybe there was a concerted effort to send in ballots for Mark Harris, but all of these ballots that weren’t returned, some of this could’ve been votes for Dan McCready, right? So the absolute number that weren’t returned, even though a lot of those might’ve been like you said, folks that were busy, There’s enough there, in theory, right, to flip this?
KK: What was it, 905, 906?
MB: 905 was the margin of victory that Harris has over McCready right now. And there are substantial numbers of ballots that we can’t attest for right now in terms of where they are. The other question that I have is, can we attest to the validity of the ballots that were returned, and I’ll give you an example. In one of the affidavits that was filed by one of six voters, she noted that she had, I believe voted for sheriff and maybe a board of education candidate, and had left the rest of the ballot blank. And she had someone approach her to say, I can take your ballot and return it to the county. And she was like, I haven’t finished filling it out, I don’t know about these other offices. And the response was, we can take care of that.
KK: We’ll fill it out for you.
MB: We’ll fill it out for you. Well, if the Ninth Congressional spot on the ballot was left blank, did it magically get filled out by somebody other than the voter? If some ballots were collected but not secured in an envelope, could that envelope have been opened and the ballot spoiled? I just don’t think we know enough within what we’ve got in terms of returned and accepted ballots to say with absolute certainty, that there isn’t something wrong; and what I would point to in the general statutes is the fourth criteria, saying, what does taint mean? Because if there’s enough irregularities or improprieties that taint the potential result of an election, then the Board has the discretionary authority to say we need a new election. Now it’s going to need up to five members to determine what the definition of “taint” is. Now, that’s the power that the legislature gave to the state board of elections.
KK: Right, now when you say, you mention the possibility that somebody spoiled a ballot, that’s to say somebody might have voted for McCready but it wasn’t sealed, they could’ve gone in and voted for Harris, and it gets thrown out.
MB: It’s just automatically thrown out.
KK: The statue says: Irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness. I would say for a lot of people there is plenty of doubt cast, but as you say it’s up to five of the nine to decide if it merits a new election, right? So if the state board calls for a new election, it’s just the general, it’s Harris, McCready and the Libertarian?
MB: At this point, that’s what we understand. Part of the question is, how far back is this investigation going? I have gotten a sense that perhaps they are looking at the primary. The primary election has been certified, though. That means that it has been officially stated. I don’t know if that can necessarily be reviewed at this point, and so the likelihood is that it’s just going to be the general election, with those three candidates back on the ballot.
KK: So, with the provision in the Constitution that would allow the Congress to make the rules —
MB: The Elections Clause.
KK: — so, at what point would — I suppose after January 3rd the new Congress convenes — do they have the ability to overrule whatever the state board wants to do? At that point, does the Congress just do whatever they want?
MB: It’s not so much overruling whatever the State Board of Elections decides to do, it’s choosing who they will decide to seat in that particular district. And It’s very clear that the House and the Senate are governed by their own procedural aspects when it comes to a member or a member-elect being sworn in and assuming office. That is purely a discretionary authority of the two chambers, and really there’s nothing that the State of North Carolina can do other than present their candidates, their members-elect, and say we certify these individuals to be the winners of these district elections.
KK: In that case, if the State Board did decide to certify these results, the Congress will seat Harris or will they step in and say we don’t like what you did?
MB: The House could make a decision as to whether to seat Harris if he is certified or to choose, through the House Administration committee, to do their own investigation, and perhaps decide not to seat Harris. That is within the power of the US House of Representatives alone.
KK: With that fourth clause in the statutes for the State Board, Dallas Woodhouse had said that that was obscure, or not ever really used, but that doesn’t really make a difference — I mean, this is unprecedented pretty much.
MB: We are in unprecedented waters, maybe we should’ve started with that statement to begin with. There is nothing in North Carolina history to really make a comparable case to what we’re seeing here. In the general statutes, there is no prioritization of those criteria. So, when I study legislation and I study statutes and I look at the plain text and try to understand the meaning of what words are used for, I look for certain key indicators. And it is one of four. There isn’t anything in the statute previous to say, in descending order, or these are the order. Each one of them has a different condition and qualification associated with it that could work by itself or in conjunction with others.
KK: Well that makes sense that you would have four, because not every instance might be the same.
MB: When you write a piece of legislation, conceivably you can’t think of every kind of situation that might present itself. And that’s often times why legislatures will give discretion to bureaucratic agencies and boards and commissions to say, we’re going to trust your judgement and give you the discretionary ability to make that decision, and we’ll just give you the power to do so.
KK: Well I’m sure by the time anyone hears this there will be new information regarding this. Do you have any thoughts where this might end up?
MB: I have to think it’s up in the air right now, and I hate to equivocate, because there are so many moving parts. Is it just one county, is it two counties, could it be broader? Layer on top of that the State Board of Elections – they’ve got a stay of life for the current makeup of the Board, but then we’re talking about a potential new Board that reverts back to the old structure. What happens then? What happens with the evidentiary meeting that’s slated to take place before December 21st? What happens with the US House? There are so many gears that could click together or could come completely wildly apart. And oh, let’s say, also the legislature is in session right now. There’s that possibility. My crystal ball got cracked in 2016. This is too many moving chess pieces for me to figure out what level we’re on.
KK: Thank you for talking with me, Professor Bitzer. Your website is?
Kirk Kovach is a native North Carolinian interested in writing about politics, communication and culture.