The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A federal election will be rerun because of fraud. Republicans aren’t talking about it much.

Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris on Feb. 21 requested a new vote and said "improper activity" had undermined confidence in the election. (Video: Reuters)

The 2018 midterm elections are not yet over.

North Carolina’s State Board of Elections voted Thursday to throw out the results of the election held in November in the state’s 9th Congressional District after the candidate who led in the vote, Mark Harris, suddenly agreed that a new election was warranted. Harris had resisted a do-over, claiming that fraud allegedly perpetrated on his behalf through the manipulation of absentee ballots would not have been enough to affect the outcome of the contest (which may or may not be true). After Harris’s son testified Wednesday that he’d warned his father about the election worker accused of committing the fraud — and after Harris admitted having failed to turn over emails from his son to investigators — Harris agreed to support a new election.

He may not be on the ballot. The Republican legislature in North Carolina voted last year to force a new primary in the event that the 9th District election needed to be rerun and overrode Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the measure. Harris goes from being the presumptive next congressman in the district to having to win two elections to get back to that point.

It may go without saying that this is an unusual situation. The last time there was a federal election that needed to be rerun was more than 40 years ago, when a close race combined with a faulty voting machine in Louisiana to prompt the calling of a new election. Politico’s Steven Shepard has a good history of past do-overs, including that Louisiana race, a history that makes clear that this is probably the first federal election in which the results were tainted by fraudulent activity.

Probably. There was a race in 1827 in Kentucky in which the death of a sitting Congress member spurred a special election between Thomas Chilton and John Calhoon. Chilton led — but then votes from Hardin County were thrown out. That put Calhoon in the lead, but he agreed to resign so that the election could be rerun. Chilton won.

Why the votes from Hardin County were tossed isn’t clear. Records from that period are sketchy, and no one answered the phone at the Hardin County Historical Society. Eric Ostermeier from the University of Minnesota had pointed out that race to Shepard but couldn’t immediately remember why those voters didn’t count. He did note, though, that election fraud was far from a rarity in the early 19th century, so that could very well have been the case.

That’s incidental. More important at this moment is that, after years of warnings, a federal election has indeed been tainted by fraud to the extent that an election has had to be rerun. But it wasn’t an election tainted by people showing up to cast illegal ballots, the fraud allegation that has been leveled scores of times by President Trump alone. Instead, it focused on allegedly corrupt actions by a man working for a consulting firm hired by one of the candidates.

John Harris, the son of Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris testified Feb. 20 during a public evidentiary hearing into voting irregularities. (Video: WECT)

A week after the midterms, Trump had claimed that the election process was riddled with fraud.

“When people get in line that have absolutely no right to vote and they go around in circles,” he said to the Daily Caller. “Sometimes they go to their car, put on a different hat, put on a different shirt, come in and vote again. Nobody takes anything. It’s really a disgrace what’s going on.”

There was no evidence that this happens. In fact, there’s no evidence that in-person voter fraud happens at any significant scale. But there’s recurring political benefit in claiming that this happens. For Trump, it allows him to soften the blows of political losses, as with the midterms and as with his loss of the popular vote in 2016 to Hillary Clinton, after which he falsely claimed that millions of votes had been cast illegally. (Trump’s effort to prove the existence of such fraud by forming a commission early in his presidency soon collapsed.) For Republicans more broadly, claims of rampant in-person voter fraud have allowed them to advocate voter ID laws that have the happy side effect of tamping down turnout from communities that tend to vote for Democrats.

Yet here, where the alleged fraud involved absentee ballots (which an expert told me in 2014 was a potential threat to the integrity of elections), there has been almost no outcry from Republican elected officials. Trump hasn’t mentioned the situation in North Carolina. A review of congressional tweets shows no Republican officials who have linked the events in the 9th District to their party’s campaign against voter fraud — and plenty of Democrats who have noted that silence.

There was a flurry of concern about voter fraud among Republicans after the midterms, though. That was when Republicans such as Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) alleged that fraud had occurred in the counting of votes in Florida’s tightly contested Senate race.

Fox News, on which Gaetz is a frequent guest, covered the Florida allegations as well. But he paid less attention to the subject when questions were first raised about Harris’s campaign in early December.

No fraudulent voting activity was found in Florida.