A good outcome in 9th, but will future NC elections be free of fraud?

Bob Cordle, state board of elections chairman, asks questions at the 9th Congressional District hearing on Thursday.
Bob Cordle, state board of elections chairman, asks questions at the 9th Congressional District hearing on Thursday. AP

Mark Harris was cruising toward a seat in Congress until Joshua Malcolm raised his hand.

The North Carolina board of elections convened on Tuesday, Nov. 27, to certify the results of the Nov. 6 election. It was expected to be a routine matter, as it is every year. But at the last minute, Malcolm asked his colleagues on the board to pull the 9th District race from the list of 13 congressional races to be certified.

He cited unspecific “unfortunate activities” and said, “I am not going to turn a blind eye to what took place to the best of my understanding which has been ongoing for a number of years that has repeatedly been referred to the United States attorney and the district attorneys for them to take action and clean it up. And in my opinion those things have not taken place.”

The board voted 9-0 not to certify Harris’s 905-vote victory over Democrat Dan McCready.

A few dozen bombshells later, details about a fraudulent absentee ballot operation in Bladen County have been unearthed and the state board has called for a new election.

So the right thing happened, ultimately, in this case, but it makes us wonder: What if Joshua Malcolm hadn’t slowed things down? How do we know there hasn’t been election fraud beyond Bladen and before 2018? How confident can North Carolinians be that their elections will be free of fraud going forward?

We applaud staff members at the state board for their thorough investigation of the Harris-McCready race, particularly as legislative meddling presented endless distractions and some leading Republicans smeared their integrity. But as Malcolm himself pointed out, the Bladen irregularities had been going on for years and nothing stopped them until now. The US attorney and district attorneys were aware of the allegations but filed no charges.

It stands to reason that there is not widespread absentee ballot fraud in other counties because complaints would have been lodged. But North Carolinians deserve more assurance than that. Are there robust systems in place to ensure there is no fraud? Are boards of elections and district attorneys and U.S. attorneys vigilant enough?

The end of the state elections board’s hearing should not mark the end of this case. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who has been investigating Bladen County’s role in the 2016 election and in the 2018 primary, should file criminal charges against anyone who committed a felony. Among those she should look at are McCrae Dowless, the Bladen County operative who orchestrated the scheme and his stepdaughter, Lisa Britt, who confessed to likely crimes under oath during the state board’s hearing. Harris himself admitted to misstating facts under oath and to potentially violating campaign finance law.

Freeman told the News & Observer’s Ned Barnett on Friday that her investigation will expand to include the 2018 general election.

NC Policy Watch quoted elections board chairman Bob Cordle as saying he hopes voters conclude from last week’s outcome that “sometimes the law works, and sometimes government works.”

It did in this case. Now let’s make sure it does all of the time.