More from the series
Election fraud investigation
Read more about the investigation into the 9th Congressional District
Republican leader Mitch McConnell recently used North Carolina’s election fraud case as an opportunity to shame Democrats for overlooking the existence of fraud in elections.
McConnell has been criticizing a recent Democratic proposal to make voting easier (HR 1) for not addressing “sketchy” ballot harvesting like the kind found in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.
Republican Mark Harris appeared to beat Democrat Dan McCready in the 9th district. But the state elections board nullified the results of the race and ordered a new election upon finding a “coordinated, unlawful, and substantially-resourced absentee ballot scheme.”
In a speech on the Senate floor last month, McConnell said he and other Republicans “for decades” have called for “common sense” election safeguards — only to be “demonized by Democrats and their allies.”
“Now that an incident of very real voter fraud has become national news, and the Republican candidate seems to have benefited,” he continued, “these long-standing Democratic talking points have been really quiet.”
McConnell’s speech gained attention after Vox reporter Aaron Rupar tweeted C-Span footage of his Feb. 26 speech.
“On Senate floor, @senatemajldr McConnell shamelessly blames Dems for Mark Harris’ election fraud in North Carolina, because Dems haven’t supported voter ID laws,” Rupar tweeted. He has 84,000 followers and the post got 2,000 retweets.
Let’s look specifically at McConnell’s claim that Republicans have warned for years — despite Democratic opposition — that more safeguards were needed. The implication is that GOP leaders were warning about the kind of fraud uncovered in North Carolina.
What kind of McConnell-backed legislation would’ve prevented that ballot scheme?
Not referencing voter ID?
National media outlets such as Vox and The Washington Post compared North Carolina’s case with Republicans’ longstanding push for stronger voter identification laws. But, when contacted by PolitiFact via email, McConnell spokesman Don Stewart referred to a copy of McConnell’s speech and noted the senator never mentioned voter ID.
“I think you should start with fact-checking the tweet you sent me,” Stewart wrote, referring to Rupar’s tweet. “The Leader did not say that Dems’ failure (to) support voter ID led to the ballot harvesting debacle in NC.”
Asked what “commonsense safeguards” McConnell referred to, Stewart pointed us to a pair of laws: the National Voter Registration Act, which McConnell opposed, and the Help America Vote Act, which he supported.
“Wait, so what are you fact checking exactly? Whether the Leader has been involved in election issues for decades?” Stewart responded. “I’d start by reading up on this involvement in HAVA (2002) and NVRA (1993). Way before your time probably, but you’ll find them interesting.”
The National Voter Registration Act, aka the motor voter bill, was introduced by a Democrat and signed by Bill Clinton in 1993. It required states to offer voter registration at motor vehicle, disability, public assistance, and armed services recruitment offices. The law also required states to have mail-in voter registration.
McConnell warned at the time that the new voter registration opportunities could lead to “fraud and coercion,” according to a 1993 Associated Press story. McConnell’s multiple attempts at undermining the effort are chronicled in a 2015 article by Slate writer Alex MacGillis.
While McConnell tied fraud to the motor voter bill, that bill didn’t speak to absentee ballots: which were the central problem in the North Carolina scandal.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002, which passed in the wake of the controversial Bush-Gore election, mostly dealt with polling station security. It required upgrades voting machines, established computerized databases for voter registration, required drivers licenses or Social Security number information in voter registration, and set minimum standards for up-to-date voter registration.
HAVA addresses absentee ballots, but mostly in the context of voting by military members and overseas citizens — not issues with absentee by-mail ballot harvesting.
Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, acknowledged that ballot harvesting isn’t addressed in those old laws because it’s “a relatively new issue.” McConnell “said he’s been involved with election security. Clearly he has,” Stewart wrote. “I’m not sure what you’re looking for now.”
What happened in NC
In North Carolina, political operatives were accused of illegally collecting ballots from people who had requested to vote absentee by-mail. State law prohibits anyone other than a close relative from handling a voter’s absentee ballot.
The political operative accused of organizing the scheme is McCrae Dowless, who worked for the Harris campaign. His stepdaughter, Lisa Britt, testified that she filled-in votes for Republicans if absentee voters left some races blank. Others testified that they collected ballots that didn’t have the required witness signatures and that some were forged.
Following the allegations, the state elections board declared a new election.
In a speech, McConnell used the election fraud case in North Carolina as a springboard to talk about how Republicans “for years” called for common sense safeguards against “voter fraud.”
But none of the legislation cited by McConnell or his office deal with the type of absentee ballot fraud found in North Carolina. McConnell didn’t specifically claim that GOP legislation would’ve prevented the North Carolina scandal, so PolitiFact isn’t running his claims through the Truth-O-Meter. However, it’s fair to say his conflation of absentee fraud and voter fraud is misleading.
This story was produced by the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, a partnership of McClatchy Carolinas, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and PolitiFact. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists provide support for the project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide. To offer ideas for fact checks, email email@example.com.