BipHoo Company / Flickr Trump dissolves voter fraud commission adviser...
BipHoo Company / Flickr

The citizens of North Carolina’s 9th U.S. Congressional District are without representation in Congress as I write, while state officials investigate allegations of election fraud in the November contest between Democrat Dan McCready and his Republican opponent, Mark Harris. On election night Harris appeared to eke out a slim victory (by a 905 vote margin), prompting a gracious concession by McCready.

But in what was expected to be a routine late-November State Board of Elections meeting to certify the election’s results, board member Joshua Malcolm stunned observers and threw Harris’s apparent victory into question:

“I’m very familiar with unfortunate activities that have been happening down in my part of the state,” vice chair Malcolm, a Robeson County Democrat, told the board. “And I am not going to turn a blind eye to what took place to the best of my understanding which has been ongoing for a number of years that has repeatedly been referred to the United States attorney and the district attorneys for them to take action and clean it up. And in my opinion those things have not taken place.”

Emerging from a hastily convened private discussion, the board’s members voted unanimously, across party lines, to decline to certify Harris’s victory in NC09, and to refer the matter to state investigators.

During the weeks that followed, snippets of news slowly began to outline the “unfortunate activities” Malcolm alluded to. In sworn affidavits, numerous Bladen and Robeson County voters painted a disturbing picture of alleged election fraud by the Harris campaign, executed by Harris’s personally chosen “GOTV” contractor, Bladen County resident (and previously convicted fraudster) McCrae Dowless. Dowless is alleged to have run an illegal ‘ballot harvesting’ operation, in which his workers were said to have applied for absentee-by-mail ballots in the names of unsuspecting Bladen and Robeson county voters (mostly people of color). Then, Dowless’s workers allegedly appeared at those same voters’ doors on or about the dates on which their ballots should arrive at their homes, helpfully offering to hand-deliver their completed ballots to the county board of elections office.

According to one sworn affidavit, Dowless’ scam was simplicity itself:

Dowless: “Well, I have added a new trick”

Shaw: “What is it?”

Dowless: “I am throwing ballots into the trash.”

It happens that at the time of this alleged activity I was serving as digital director for the campaign of a North Carolina Democratic candidate. And from that position I had the opportunity to observe that state Democrats mostly don’t use data science at all strategically. So recently, while preparing a white paper to illustrate what outside-the-box data analytics can bring to the table for progressive North Carolina campaigns, my colleagues and I thought it might be interesting to use as one example a quick look into the alleged ballot harvesting operations in Bladen and Robeson counties, putting to good use the detailed election data that, by state law, is publicly available here in North Carolina.

The animated data visualization embedded below centers on heavily gerrymandered NC09, which spans portions of eight counties ranging from a mostly white suburb of the state’s largest city, Charlotte, in the west (where the vast majority of the district’s voters live), then meandering eastward through thinly populated rural counties and ending with the state investigation’s targets: majority-minority Bladen and Robeson counties on the district’s extreme eastern end.

We reasoned that if Republican ballot harvesters were throwing the ballots of unsympathetic voters into the trash in Bladen and Robeson, that should be made obvious by mapping the residential locations of every NC09 voter who is recorded to have requested an absentee-by-mail ballot, but who is not recorded to have voted in the election (so-called ‘no-vote requesters’). Such a scheme’s targets would reasonably believe that they had already voted by mail, so would not attempt to vote again during early voting or on election day. But because their ballots were actually at the bottom of a burn barrel in the woods, they really never voted at all.

In this animation, dots appear on the map at the residential locations of every one of NC09’s no-vote requesters, appearing in the animation on the dates their ballot requests were received by the county board of elections (the animation’s time course runs from May 7 through October 30, 2018, spanning the period from the state’s primary to the last date on which absentee-by-mail ballot requests were accepted). Red and blue dots represent registered Republicans and Democrats, respectively, while green dots represent voters with no party affiliation. The small graph in the lower left corner reports the cumulative frequency of no-vote requesters (number per 1,000 registered voters) for Bladen County, Robeson County, and the remainder of NC09.

To the analyst’s eye, there’s a lot to learn here regarding how illegal ballot harvesters work.

First, fraudsters roll up their sleeves and get to work early in the election cycle. While (presumably) legitimate ballot requests across the rest of NC09 didn’t start rolling in in any significant numbers until about Sept. 20th, Robeson County saw high numbers of requests coming in as early as June 11. That makes sense. It takes a heap of back road driving and door-knocking for a smallish group of door-to-door fraudsters to harvest a significant number of ballots in rural counties. If they hope to meet their quotas, they need to start early.

Second, while legitimate ballot requests pop up more-or-less randomly distributed across a county’s populated areas, fraudulent requests for ballots intended to be harvested pop up in spatiotemporal clusters, a bunch of them coming in from one hamlet one day, and from a different community down the road the next day. That too makes sense. Just like legitimate canvassers, fraud organizers likely drive teams of harvesters to work different neighborhoods on different days, thus minimizing drive time and fuel costs.

Finally, in Bladen County particularly (green line on the graph), requests for ballots to be harvested come into the board of elections in bursts of dozens of ballots all at once, separated by periods of no activity. This ‘burst mode’ would be a time-saver for the organizer who has to hand-deliver the requests to the county BOE office (while it is illegal in NC to deliver someone else’s voted ballot, it is not illegal to deliver someone else’s ballot request). It appears that someone made a total of about 6 trips to the Bladen board of elections office between August 22 and October 26, each time bearing armfuls of phony ballot requests.

Assembling this spatiotemporal analysis was more than merely an exercise in producing eye-candy (we would have used a higher screen resolution and more color if that was our goal). By uncovering these plus other characteristic data signatures of ballot harvesters’ at work (some of which are not at all obvious in this video) we’re in a much better position to be on the lookout to spot illegal ballot-harvesting in real time in 2020.

Ballot harvesting in rural communities of color is a cherished tradition among some North Carolina Republicans…and it’s long past time for us to put a stop to it.

Now that we know what it looks like, perhaps we actually can.

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