When the North Carolina State Board of Elections’ investigation of the 9th Congressional District ended with a call for a new election, the nation witnessed what is probably the first federal election overturned because of fraud. As a new campaign begins, three key lessons can be learned from 2018’s tainted contest.

It was election fraud, not voter fraud.

North Carolina’s politics, as has been true elsewhere in the nation, have been laser-focused on “voter fraud.” North Carolina Republicans recently passed legislation, quickly challenged in court, that implemented a state constitutional amendment requiring photo identification when voting in person. The executive director of the state Republican Party dismissed academic studies showing that voter fraud is rare.

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However, an audit by North Carolina’s Board of Elections after the 2016 election not only showed that voter fraud is exceedingly rare but warned of the very different type of fraud that occurred in the 9th District. The audit identified only 508 “voting irregularities” out of 4.8 million ballots cast, or one ten-thousandth of a percent. Most irregularities involved votes by felons, which is illegal in North Carolina, while a small number involved noncitizens with legal status attempting to vote. Only two cases of voter impersonation were referred to prosecutors.

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In that same audit, the board noted “irregularities affecting absentee by-mail voting” in the same part of the 9th District (Bladen County). This involved witnesses who signed multiple absentee mail ballots. In fact, the man at the center of the 2018 controversy — Leslie McCrae Dowless — brought the 2016 allegations but ended up implicating himself in a ballot harvesting operation. The board unanimously referred the suspected criminal activity to federal prosecutors.

Nothing came of the North Carolina board’s referral, however. And then it was precisely this type of “election fraud” that affected the tainted 2018 election.

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In short, the extraordinary attention to “voter fraud” may have missed a more dangerous and prevalent type of election malfeasance.

Catching election fraud requires good data.

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In “Election Fraud,” the political scientists Michael Alvarez, Thad Hall and Susan Hyde note that catching election fraud requires “a transparent electoral process and high-quality data reported in a timely manner.” This is exactly where North Carolina excels.

Each day during an election’s early voting period, which includes both mail-in and in-person absentee voting, the North Carolina Board of Elections releases a public file, documenting which voters requested, returned and ultimately had their ballots accepted. In addition, the state board releases a file after the election, showing whether registered voters actually voted and which method of voting they used.

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These data raised red flags in the 9th Congressional District. First, the election results showed that in only one county, Bladen, did Republican Mark Harris win the absentee mail-in ballots. Further investigation discovered that Harris won 61 percent of absentee mail-in ballots — even though only 19 percent of voters who cast these ballots were registered Republicans.

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Without data transparency, these irregularities may have been harder to discover.

Great data can be put to nefarious ends.

North Carolina’s tainted election can be seen as yet another manifestation of partisan polarization in national and state politics. As Democratic and Republican politicians and voters have grown further apart, partisanship’s team spirit can easily become a “win-at-any-cost” mind-set.

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This makes illegal electoral operations even more tempting. One of the most consequential questions asked by one of the state board’s Democratic members to Harris was simple: “You just wanted to win?” Harris responded that he was assured by Dowless that there was no ballot harvesting.

Moreover, the very public records that can identify potential irregularities can also be used to manipulate voters. Within the daily data released by the state board, a voter who requests an absentee mail-in ballot has his or her address included. Campaigns can track those voters, sending them campaign brochures or information, or potentially have campaign workers show up. This was the harvesting method Dowless used.

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Politics has always been about winning, but today’s intense partisan battles may create an even greater incentive to break the rules.

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So what comes next?

As yet, the date of the new election in the 9th Congressional District is to be determined by the board of elections. An announcement is expected soon.

Right now, both parties may hold new primaries before the general election. In December, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a measure mandating a new primary if a new election was called for — even though the 2018 primary election was fully certified and only the general election faced scrutiny. But this law could face a legal challenge.

The entire election cycle — including the primary and general elections — could take up to five months. This allows time for candidate filing, ballot printing and testing, and then almost seven weeks mailing ballots to overseas voters, as well as early and Election Day voting. Potentially lengthening the process is a rule requiring a second primary election if no candidate receives 30 percent of the primary vote.

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For the Democrats, the 2018 candidate, Dan McCready, announced his bid again after the new election was called and has raised a significant amount of money for a second run. Although the Republican field probably will be crowded, all eyes are on what Harris will do. Former congressman Robert Pittenger, whom Harris defeated in the 2018 primary, has said he will not run again.

Michael Bitzer is a professor of politics and history at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., where he specializes in North Carolina politics and teaches American politics, law, and public administration and policy.

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