Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested on the Senate floor Tuesday morning that Democrats were to blame for a recent case of substantial election fraud in North Carolina that benefited a GOP House candidate.
McConnell’s comments come just days after the bipartisan North Carolina Board of Elections unanimously ordered a new congressional election for the seat that Republican Mark Harris led by 905 votes after November’s contest. State investigators found substantial evidence a Harris operative hired people to collect absentee ballots from voters ― which is illegal in the state ― and to falsely sign as witnesses on those ballots. One of the employees also testified that the operation involved opening unsealed ballots and filling out down-ballot races.
Harris, who agreed the election was tainted and called for a new contest, insisted that he didn’t know the operative was engaged in wrongdoing, but state investigators presented evidence he was warned.
Over the last decade, Democrats have pushed back on GOP voting restrictions like voter identification, saying that voter fraud is extremely rare and that the measures do more to prevent eligible voters from casting a ballot than they do to prevent nefarious activity. Voter ID would not have prevented the absentee ballot fraud that took place in North Carolina, but McConnell said Democratic opposition to measures like it had enabled what took place.
“We were hit with left-wing talking points insisting that voter fraud wasn’t real. Never happens, they said. Well, that fraud just didn’t happen, that modest efforts to ensure that voters who are who they say they are and are voting in the proper place were really some sinister right-wing plot to prevent people from voting,” McConnell said. “So now, as you might expect, now that an incident of very real voter fraud has become national news and the Republican candidate seems ― seems ― to have benefited, these long-standing Democratic talking points have been really quiet.”
Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in North Carolina who brought some of the irregularities in the state to light, said the kind of fraud that occurred in North Carolina was different from what Republicans have been focused on for years. He said McConnell was conflating voter fraud ― illegal voters trying to manipulate the outcome of an election ― with a case of ballot fraud where someone tried to manipulate the votes of legitimate voters.
“One the ‘so called voter’ is at fault for the fraud; the other the voter is being denied because of a third party’s action. If someone claims that is a distinction without a difference, then I’m sorry for them and their logic,” he said in an email.
“As noted by academic studies and even the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in 2006, fraud committed with absentee [ballots] by mail is much more likely to be evident than voter fraud,” Bitzer said. “By conflating election and ballot fraud with the rare voter fraud, the Senate Majority Leader tries to shift the blame to the mantra of voter fraud, without recognizing that it was election/ballot fraud, and that the two are distinctly different. It seems he was just trying to score political points with the wrong facts to make an unsubstantiated case.”
Marc Elias, the lawyer who represented Democratic candidate Dan McCready in the North Carolina matter, criticized McConnell for suggesting Democrats were to blame.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), the Democratic leader in the Senate, also accused McConnell of conflating two different things.
McConnell said Democrats had no real interest in tightening restrictions on collecting absentee ballots, but he also conceded that collecting absentee ballots is already illegal in North Carolina. When someone fills out an absentee ballot in North Carolina, they also have to do so in front of two witnesses, who are required to sign the ballot envelope. In North Carolina, McCrae Dowless, the operative under scrutiny, paid people to falsify witness signatures.
Federal and state prosecutors also had evidence Dowless was involved in a similar scheme in 2016. Neither brought criminal charges against the operative, allowing Dowless to do the same thing in 2018.
At the hearing last week, Harris’ son testified that he had warned his father in 2017 that Dowless was likely illegally collecting absentee ballots. Harris hired him anyway.
McConnell didn’t mention any of that Tuesday morning. Instead, he tried to link the fraud in North Carolina to California, where collecting absentee ballots was recently legalized.
“We have no way to know if those ballots were sealed or even voted when they were harvested. The only evidence we have is the voter cast his or her ballot is the signature. Now, this past election cycle turned out favorably for California Democrats,” McConnell said.
Republicans, steaming over House losses in the Golden State, have suggested the practice cost them elections. President Donald Trump said Friday there were over 1 million illegal votes cast in the state, and McConnell said Tuesday the absentee ballots could have been tampered with. There’s no evidence that’s true.
“In a page straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook, Mitch McConnell is trying to deflect away from corruption perpetrated by North Carolina Republican campaign operatives by attacking California,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D) said in a statement. “While McConnell has spent his career gutting voting rights, we are making it easier for working Californians to vote. In California, we’re expanding voter registration opportunities, expanding early voting and vote-by-mail, and giving voters the choice to decide who they trust to return their vote-by-mail ballot.”
This story was updated with comment from Alex Padilla and reaction from Sen. Chuck Schumer.