November 10, 2019 at 3:00 pm

In wake of fraud scandal, voting by mail dropped by two-thirds in 9th District

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Raleigh, N.C. — Nearly a year after voters went to the polls in North Carolina‘s 9th Congressional District race, they will finally send a congressman to Washington, D.C., after .

But how voters cast their ballots for the special election looks far different than it did ahead of last November‘s midterms.

The rate at which voters used mail-in absentee ballots – the voting method at the heart of an election fraud scandal that triggered the do-over election in the 9th District – fell by more than two-thirds across the district, according to the latest data from the State Board of Elections.

That doesn‘t surprise Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College who watches the state‘s congressional races closely. Given the “fiasco” in Bladen County, he said, it makes sense that people are wary of voting by mail.

“A lot of people probably decided, ‘You know what? I want to do this in person. I want to see my ballot submitted,‘” Bitzer said. “That‘s just human nature.”

The state board tossed the results of last year‘s race after accusations that McCrae Dowless, a political operative hired by then-Republican candidate Mark Harris, mishandled mail-in absentee ballots in a harvesting scheme in Bladen and Robeson counties. Dowless and other members of his crew face felony charges in state court and an ongoing federal investigation.

In Bladen County alone, , people in Dowless‘ operation handled one out of every five absentee ballots counted in 2018.

According to their latest data Wednesday morning, the board had counted more than 2,000 absentee ballots mailed to county boards of elections during the 2019 special election in the 9th District.

Mailed ballots must be postmarked by Election Day. So, while that number may change as additional votes roll in through the week, it‘s a far smaller figure than the nearly 11,000 ballots mailed in from voters in the race through November 2018.

Special elections are often expected to turn out fewer voters. But even accounting for the decrease in turnout, election data show that only about 1 percent of the ballots cast in the 2019 special election for the 9th District were absentee by mail.

That‘s compared to almost 4 percent of the turnout in 2018, when the 9th District led every other district in the percentage of ballots cast by mail.

Statewide, almost 3 percent of the turnout in congressional elections in 2018 came from votes cast by mail.

But it‘s hard to go back much further for comparison: In 2017, state lawmakers redrew North Carolina‘s congressional maps under an order from the courts, which found that existing lines amounted to unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

Pat Gannon, the spokesman for the State Board of Elections, said the “hangover” effect from the 2018 election fraud issues may be one explanation for the lowered rate of mail-in ballot usage, although he added that the agency encourages voters “to cast ballots in whatever way fits their busy schedules – absentee by-mail, in-person early voting or on Election Day.”

Looking ahead, Bitzer said he expects depressed turnout by mail will be a lasting legacy of the 2018 scandal – at least for a while.

“I think it will be low for maybe two or three election cycles,” he said. “Once people‘s memories start to fade, it will kind of bounce back.”

But he cautioned against reading too much into the year-to-year trend.

“Oftentimes, voters tend to be creatures of habit,” he said. “They may have changed this time, but in future elections, they may be more comfortable.”

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