Thursday, December 6, 2018

Election fraud in rural North Carolina has historic echoes

"History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme," this quote, which is often attributed to Mark Twain, has particular relevance in today's world. By now many of you are familiar with the election fraud allegations against Republican candidate Mark Harris in North Carolina's Ninth Congressional District. The scandal, which centers around Bladen County, involves absentee ballots and whether or not they were properly handled. There are a couple of red flags here. First of all, when compared to both the political demographics of the county and his performance in the rest of the district, Harris received a disproportionate percentage of absentee votes. Second of all, Bladen County had an incredibly high percentage of absentee ballots that were requested but yet never actually returned. Harris's campaign is accused of tampering with the electoral process by paying an operative to collect absentee ballots, which is illegal under North Carolina law. What happened to the ballots afterward is at the heart of the investigation and the allegations are pretty serious. This election however has echoes to the 1894 midterm elections when Democrats found themselves challenged by a fusion ticket of Populists and Republicans. In that election, the Democrats attempted to maintain power in the same communities as the current Ninth by engaging in voter suppression and manipulation at the ballot box. In this post, I will discuss the 1894 election and its similarities to the current situation.

North Carolina is in a political transition phase. Like its northern neighbor, Virginia, North Carolina is increasingly becoming more of a political battleground and entrenched power structures are being increasingly threatened. There is a history lesson here about how North Carolina politicians react to their power structure being threatened and the lengths that they will go to maintain it. After Reconstruction, North Carolina found itself in a unique situation. With a substantially smaller large planter class than its neighbors and an economy that depended more on small scale agriculture, North Carolina was more of a political background than many of the other Southern states. While Democrats were able to hold power for much of this period, they often won by smaller margins than Democrats throughout the rest of the South. In fact, between 1876 and 1892, they never received more than 54% of the vote in a gubernatorial election. This relatively narrow margin left Democrats in North Carolina vulnerable to a political wave, which is exactly what hit in the 1890s. Buoyed by frustrated rural Democrats who were unhappy with President Grover Cleveland's economic policies and the recession that followed, the Populist movement in North Carolina took hold and became a real threat. In fact, in 1892, the Democratic nominee for governor, Elias Carr, was elected with just 48.3% of the vote. The Republicans and Populist ran separate candidates and split the remaining vote. They would not repeat that mistake two years later and would decide to run their candidates as a fusion ticket.

In 1894, Bladen County was in North Carolina's Third Congressional District. My home county, Robeson, which borders Bladen, was in North Carolina's Sixth. Both are now in the current Ninth District. Much of the below information comes from James Beeby's 2001 writing, "Equal Rights to All, Special Privileges to None:" Grassroots Populism in North Carolina. It was published by the North Carolina Historical Review and is available on JSTOR and if you would like a more in-depth recounting of the 1894 election, I highly recommend you check it out.

In 1894, the Fusion ticket enjoyed great success statewide, winning the state legislature and at least six of the state's nine congressional districts. After election night, the Democrats thought that that they had held onto the third and sixth districts but the Populists would challenge the results in both districts. At the heart of their allegations was that the Democrats had engaged in a variety of election fraud tactics, including stuffing the ballot box and intimidating Fusionist voters into simply not voting. In Robeson County, a hotbed for electoral corruption, it was recorded that many Populist voters did not vote because they feared that the local Democrats would simply count their vote for the Democrat and ignore their actual vote. As you might imagine, oversight was incredibly lax in those days. Many of those who did show up to vote had their ballots challenged anyway and were unable to actually have their vote recorded. The same tactics were taking place in the Third. Much like Harris's campaign, the Democrats saw manipulation of the ballot box as their path to victory. The Populists were luckily able to record many of these happenings by placing volunteers at polling stations and this would prove to be incredibly helpful for their challenge of the election results.

A couple of days ago, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland said that Mark Harris would not be seated until these allegations are resolved. This is the exact opposite of what happened in 1895 when James Lockhart and John Shaw, the Democrats from the Sixth and Third Districts respectively, were allowed to be seated in the House while their elections were being disputed. This effectively meant that these districts were represented by Congressmen that could not even prove that they were legitimately elected. In the end, the Populists prevailed in the Sixth District and Populist Charles Martin was seated in the House of Representatives on June 5, 1896, over a year and a half after the election.  In the Third, the Democrats prevailed but only because, unlike in the Sixth, there was also a Republican candidate on the ballot (against the wishes of the local Republican Party) and it was difficult to prove whether or not disenfranchised voters would have voted for the Republican or the Populist. In the 1896 elections, the Populists and Republicans were more effective at creating a fusion ticket in the Third District and were able to easily secure both the Third and Sixth Congressional seats.

In the current election, the road map ahead appears unclear. The North Carolina Board of Elections has refused to certify the results and the State Bureau of Investigations is currently investigating potential criminal activity. Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia is even calling for a Congressional probe into the election. It seems unlikely that Harris will be seated until this is fully resolved and it is entirely possible that North Carolina's 9th will not have a Congressman when Congress convenes on January 3rd. It is also entirely possible that we could have a new election, which the Board of Elections has the power to call in order to fully settle the matter.

At the end of the day, voter suppression and electoral fraud in the face of changing power structures is a sad reality for the communities that now constitute North Carolina's 9th Congressional District. The idea of suppressing votes and manipulating vote totals to remain in power is sadly not a new idea for politicians in that area. As North Carolina continues to change, it is important that we do not ignore history and remember the lessons learned.

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