Republicans got absolutely hammered in the 2018 midterms. Democrats picked up 40 seats in the House, extirpated the GOP from former Republican strongholds like Orange County in California, flipped seven governorships, and took control of seven state legislatures.
This shellacking has brought one of the signature Republican political tactics into stark outline: cheating.
In response to Democrats winning state-level races, GOP state legislative majorities are rushing to strip those seats of their powers. In other states where Democrats won a sizable majority of votes, Republican gerrymandering preserved lopsided conservative majorities. And in North Carolina's 9th District, it increasingly seems like a Republican operative straight-up rigged the election.
Let's take these in turn. In Michigan and Wisconsin, Democrats won all six big statewide races — for governor, attorney general, and secretary of state. But as Joel Mathis points out, Republicans are attempting to drastically scale back the powers of those offices in the lame-duck session. Wisconsin Republicans are pushing through a slate of bills to stop the new governor from withdrawing from an anti-ObamaCare lawsuit, limit early voting, move the 2020 presidential primary to help a conservative judge, and erode the governor's administrative authority in several areas.
Meanwhile, Michigan Republicans are considering a sweeping slate of legislation to overturn the marijuana legalization ballot initiative that just passed, undermine other ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage and ensure nonpartisan district boundaries, prevent disclosure of dark money donors, strip power from local government, and a lot more.
Compounding the outrage, Republicans will maintain control of both states' legislatures even after this year because of a different method of cheating: gerrymandering. In Michigan, because of abusive drawing of district boundaries, the GOP will maintain a 58-52 majority in the state House and a 22-16 majority in the state Senate despite Democrats getting 175,000 and 117,300 more votes in each chamber's elections, respectively.
Here's the situation in Wisconsin, which is even more lopsided:
That brings me to North Carolina, where the hideously gerrymandered legislature is considering a bill to ensure a Republican always chairs every county election board through the preposterous contrivance of giving them all the "even-numbered" years — that is, when all the elections happen.
But more remarkably, a snowballing scandal has engulfed Mark Harris, the Republican candidate for North Carolina's 9th Congressional District. In the initial election results, he defeated Democrat Mark McCready by a mere 905 votes — but it looks very much like Harris was the beneficiary of absentee ballot fraud. The scandal centers around a man named Leslie McCrae Dowless, who worked for the Harris campaign as an organizer in Bladen County — and was convicted of fraud and perjury back in 1990. Nevertheless, Harris knew him personally and recommended his services to other Republican politicians.
Here's the story. First, the initial results were odd — showing Bladen County with the highest share of absentee ballots out of any county in the district, and Harris winning them by a huge 24-point margin. By contrast, even in Union County where Harris won by 21 points overall, he still lost absentee ballots by 21 points. The Bladen County margin is so big that Harris would have had to roll up every Republican, every independent, and a good portion of Democrats. Additionally, it and neighboring Robeson County had a large fraction of requested absentee ballots that were never turned in. Overall, the total possible affected vote could easily have swung the election.
It turns out similar suspicious outcomes go back to at least 2016. Dowless worked for a different Republican candidate in 2016, who lost overall but won 68 percent of the vote in Bladen County — including a Saddam Hussein-esque 98 percent of the absentee ballots. Dowless and his alleged scheme actually turned up in an episode of This American Life at the time.
But back to the 2018 midterms. It turns out a number of people in Bladen County signed as witnesses to multiple absentee ballots, five of which put the same one-bedroom apartment as their address. One of them told a local news station on camera that Dowless paid her to collect ballots. Several local voters submitted notarized statements that people had contacted them to collect their ballot, one of which filled out part of it (a federal crime). And while I was writing this article, this happened:
Both the payment and the collection are illegal — according to North Carolina law, absentee ballots can only be dropped off or mailed by a voter, their close relatives, or legal guardians, and it is naturally illegal to pay people to collect them.
That is why the bipartisan North Carolina election commission has twice declined to certify the election result, and is investigating this incredibly suspicious story. Naturally, North Carolina Republicans are screaming that Democrats are trying to steal the election, and demanding the result be certified immediately.
This is a perfect demonstration of the pure bad faith behind conservative claims that voter ID laws are necessary because of in-person voter fraud. Trying to steal an election by wrangling hundreds or thousands of people to commit a felony in broad daylight is an incredibly stupid (indeed, virtually impossible) tactic. You steal elections by controlling the count — by stuffing ballot boxes with votes of dead people or nonvoters (Lyndon Johnson, 1948), by corrupting the vote-counting process (as Dowless appears to have done), or by simply falsifying the election returns (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 2009).
At the risk of stating the obvious, a foundational aspect of small-d democratic (or small-r republican) institutions is that all parties must treat electoral results as legitimate. Political competition is thus channeled through nonviolent appeals to the voters as the ultimate source of authority. The consent of the governed is obtained by voting, instead of appeals to divine right, tradition, or simple force.
But many political factions are contemptuous of democracy or republicanism, and prefer to cling to power by any means necessary. It should be noted that this is a common feature of American history. Most Southern states have been formally democratic in the barest sense of allowing all adult citizens to vote for only a small minority of their history. (To be fair, many Northern states are barely better, even today.)
As Eric Levitz writes, the 2018 Republican Party is baldly at odds with its own title. They do not believe in republican institutions, because — to quote one of the party's own founders — "government of the people, by the people, for the people" means they will lose. And so, they cheat.