One of the biggest political stories in the nation this week may have been broken by college students. You may recall that reporters for Auburn University’s campus newspaper discovered that the editor of a weekly west Alabama newspaper, Goodloe Sutton, had penned a shockingly racist editorial calling for the return of the Ku Klux Klan. It turns out that Sutton has been churning out horribly bigoted editorials for years, and has largely done so unnoticed since his paper has no Website.
But an equally important story in which college students played a key role has gone largely unnoticed. A statistics class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill uncovered what may be the first solid mathematical proof that the last undecided House race of the 2018 cycle was irrevocably tainted by fraud.
When the new Democratic majority in the House took power in January, only 434 members were sworn in. The 435th seat was unoccupied–the seat from North Carolina’s 9th District, which stretches from south Charlotte to Fayetteville. This district was one of the first in the South to turn Republican; it and its predecessors have been in Republican hands without interruption since 1953.
However, the 2018 race saw the Democrats come closer than they have in six decades to ending that tradition. It initially appeared that Republican candidate and former pastor Mark Harris, who had unseated three-term incumbent Robert Pittenger in the primary, had only nosed out Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. McCready conceded on the day after the election.
But the state board of elections threw the political world into a tailspin when it refused to certify Harris’ win, citing evidence of staggering irregularities in the two easternmost counties in the district, Bladen and Robeson counties. Multiple witnesses submitted affidavits claiming that people came around to collect their absentee ballots before they were completed and signed, or offered to fill out their ballots for them. Both of these acts are blatantly illegal under North Carolina election law.
Attention quickly turned to McCrae Dowless, an independent contractor for Harris’ main campaign consultant who was hired to oversee an absentee ballot strategy in Bladen County. At least two people admitted on camera that Dowless paid them to collect ballots. CNN subsequently discovered that more than 1,000 absentee ballots never made it to Raleigh–far exceeding Harris’ apparent margin.
Through all of this, Republicans insisted that Harris was the victim of a politically motivated scheme to keep him out of Congress. But that collapsed during this week’s evidentiary hearing. Harris’ own son, John–a federal prosecutor–testified that he’d emailed his father on multiple occasions to warn him that Dowless’ absentee ballot program was potentially illegal.
Harris initially denied telling anyone that the emails would not be part of evidence. But faced with the prospect of being racked up for perjury, Harris abruptly reversed himself and called for a new election. Watch here, courtesy The (Raleigh) News & Observer.
Hours later, the board unanimously voted to call for a new election, citing evidence of what board chairman Bob Cordle called “the corruption, the absolute mess” with absentee ballots.
But it turns out that the board would have had ample reason to call for a new election even without Harris coming to his senses. Earlier in the month, Richard Smith, a statistics professor at UNC, sent the board the results of an analysis he and students conducted of absentee ballots in the 9th District race.
Smith told The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s campus newspaper, that he culled absentee ballot data from all 100 of North Carolina’s counties. He discovered that some 11 to 12 percent of absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties, the counties at the epicenter of the scandal, were never returned–almost three times the rate for the rest of the state.
Smith initially had his students look at the absentee ballots as a homework assignment. He had them construct two linear models. One showed the rate of unreturned ballots for all 100 counties. The other predicted the number of ballots that should not have been returned in Bladen and Robeson under normal conditions.
When combined with the number of ballots that were unreturned in Bladen and Robeson, Smith and his students concluded that over 1,500 absentee ballots had not been returned in those counties–more than one-and-a-half times Harris’ margin over McCready. They arrived at this figure with 99 percent confidence.
One of the students, Michael Quint, said that there was no way for those two counties to have that many ballots go unreturned “without intervention.” Even before then, one of his classmates, Rachel Allen, noticed the rate of unreturned ballots in those counties made them outliers.
Smith sent his initial findings to the state board in January, and sent an updated version earlier in the month. He stressed that there is no way of knowing whether those missing votes were intended for Harris or McCready. While this doesn’t prove that 1,500 votes were stolen from McCready, it does prove that 1,500 people were effectively prevented from voting. It’s no small thing to prove that people literally had their right to vote stolen from them.
One has to hope that Smith shared his findings with the federal and state prosecutors investigating this massive fraud. After all, this amounts to DNA-level proof that Dowless’ shenanigans tainted this election. Mathematical proof is far stronger than legal proof. As Harry Markopolos, the man who proved Bernie Madoff was a fraud, once said, “with a math problem, there is only one correct answer.”
Seen in this light, it was only a matter of time before the board came to the only credible conclusion and ordered a new election. One could have only imagined the looks on the faces of Harris and his legal team had the board been able to present mathematical evidence that this fraud indeed affected the election. Someone needs to get Smith and his students medals.
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