Now is a strange time to be a North Carolinian. Half the counties in the state are in danger of being engulfed by massive wildfires, and, more existentially, we're still not sure who our next governor is going to be.
On Election Day, Republicans mostly swept the major contests—Senator Richard Burr and Donald Trump had wide margins—but early returns indicated that Governor Pat McCrory had lost to his Democratic challenger, longtime Attorney General Roy Cooper, by a slim margin. Cooper declared victory, and is assembling a transition team in anticipation of being sworn in on January 7.
But McCrory has refused to concede. First he claimed he was waiting for every vote to be counted, but he's not getting any closer to a win. According to the most recent State Board of Elections data, Cooper leads McCrory by 7,716 ballots out of more than 4.5 million cast. The battle has put the state's politics in limbo, with some speculating that McCrory has a secret plan to get the General Assembly to overturn the election results, even though most people in the know are assuming that Cooper will eventually win.
Most observers of state politics chalk up McCrory's apparent defeat to his signing of HB2, North Carolina's notorious "bathroom bill" which contains language allowing for widespread discrimination against the state's trans community. Not only did the bill give Cooper ammunition to stir up social progressives, it's also led to businesses moving jobs out of the state and the NBA taking its all-star game away from Charlotte. (McCrory had campaigned in 2008 and 2012 as more of a moderate than a hardcore social conservative.) So his loss is hardly a huge upset—but he says it wasn't a loss at all.
Earlier this month, McCory filed complaints in more than 50 counties, claiming widespread voter fraud. He said ballots for his opponent had been cast on behalf of dead people, people living out of state, and felons. He also pledged to file more even more complaints on a rolling basis.
The governor has alleged he's the victim of a "massive voter fraud scheme" perpetrated by the Democratic Party. In a legal brief filed over the weekend, McCrory's campaign petitioned the State Board of Elections for the right to assume jurisdiction over counties in which they claim voter fraud occurred, effectively allowing them to nullify voting results in those counties.
Naturally, his opponents think all of this is sour grapes. "McCrory's filing these challenges and looking to scrounge up evidence—that's not the way the system's supposed to work," Terry Van Duyn, the State Senate Democratic whip, told me.
McCrory's campaign has pointed to evidence suggesting that several hundred absentee ballots from in Bladen County may have been illegally cast. The original complaint filed on behalf of McCrory takes issue with votes cast not in favor of the governor's opponent but instead for a write-in candidate in a down-ballot election (view the complaint here, along with others filed as part of the governor's efforts to contest the results). The Bladen County Improvement Association, the local voting rights group accused of perpetrating the fraud, has claimed that the evidence McCrory's camp is pointing to is simply evidence that they helped members of the county's African-American community file absentee ballots.
On Monday, the State Board of Elections declined to assume jurisdiction over all the objections the governor was making. The next day, McCrory officially filed for a statewide recount, even though the election results in some counties have not been finalized. State law dictates that once all votes are certified, election officials must conduct recounts in statewide contests in which a candidate's margin of victory is less than 10,000 votes. (My emails to both the Cooper and McCrory campaigns, as well as the State Board of Elections, went unreturned.)
"He's making widespread allegations of voter fraud without any evidence. It delegitimizes the system."
– Michael Munger
Jake Quinn is a former FDIC official and current Asheville-based voting rights activist who also serves as a member of the Democratic National Committee. In a phone interview, Quinn said, "The funny thing about McCrory leveling these charges is Republicans control the State Board of Elections and the Board of Elections in every county. It means he doesn't trust the people he gave these jobs to." (Full disclosure: I met Quinn while serving as a volunteer on a Democratic congressional campaign. The candidate was my father. He lost.)
Michael Munger, a political science professor at Duke University who ran against McCrory in 2008 as a Libertarian, told me that irregularities in voter rolls are de rigueur in the state. "Several North Carolina counties have more registered voters than they have population," he told me. "There are dead people registered to vote, and there are people who have moved away who have still registered." As Munger sees it, it's within McCrory's rights to call for the legitimacy of every ballot to be determined in such a narrow contest. "In this chess game, that's the correct move. If it has been a close race and the Republicans were winning, the Democrats would be doing something similar," he said.
However, Munger added, "McCrory's doing more than that. He's making widespread allegations of voter fraud without any evidence. It delegitimizes the system." Though there very well could be a handful of instances of fraud in each of the state's 100 counties, he said, even if all of those phony votes had been cast against McCrory, removing them from his opponent's tally would only knock Cooper's lead down by a fraction.
Watch the VICE News Tonight report on the North Carolina election:
So why is McCrory fighting so hard? In a widely circulated Slate post from earlier this week, Mark Joseph Stern speculated that the goal might be to delegitimize the election results and move the contest to the heavily Republican state legislature, who could then "step in and select him as the winner." Indeed, state law dictates that if there's a serious question "as to the conduct or results of (an) election, the General Assembly shall determine which candidate received the highest number of votes."
Quinn told me that if this is what McCrory's angling for, he'll have a hard time making the case that the election results had been tainted. The law in question, he explained, has its roots in a 2004 race in which thousands of ballots had been lost or destroyed, rendering a recount impossible. "The difficulty of relying on the precedent of lost and destroyed ballots," he said, "is we have them this time." Quinn, who serves as the Democratic liaison to the Buncombe County Board of Elections, told me that the has state instituted a system in which votes are tabulated electronically and are backed up by paper records. "North Carolina has a zillion problems right now, but the way it conducts elections isn't one of them," he said.
State Senator Van Duyn isn't so sure McCrory's strategy will fail entirely. "If he can get people wondering about voter fraud, then he can justify a lack of confidence in the outcome and give the election to the General Assembly," she said.
But if that happened, she doubts legislators will simply hand McCrory the election out of partisanship. "When push comes to shove, I think the General Assembly will lose their nerve," she told me. "Fundamentally, democracy works because we believe it works. Can you imagine how cynical people would feel if the General Assembly told them their votes didn't count?"
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