© 2023 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A History Of Election Disputes In North And South Carolina

A composite photo of former Gov. Pat McCrory (left) and current Gov. Roy Cooper (right) during the final gubernatorial debate on October 18, 2016.
Logan Ulrich
A composite photo of former Gov. Pat McCrory (left) and current Gov. Roy Cooper (right) during the final gubernatorial debate on October 18, 2016.

This article is made possible through a partnership between WFAE and Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of our republishing policy.

A group of congressional Republicans this week attempted to overturn election results in a handful of states, using baseless claims of fraud surrounding absentee mail ballots.

Their efforts did not include North Carolina because President Trump narrowly won the state.

But some of the issues cited in states like Pennsylvania over expanded absentee mail ballots were also at play in North Carolina. The 2020 fight over mail voting in North Carolina capped off a years-long fight over voting access and allegations of fraud.

In “North Carolina, we are used to a significant number of elections being in the news and in dispute,” said Michael Bitzer, professor of politics at Catawba College, citing regular legal challenges over federal and state redistricting.

One notable example is from 1950. Hubert Davis was then the incumbent sheriff of rural Madison county, east of Asheville, and refused to leave office after losing his re-election.According to this Charlotte Observer article, Davis only left after a two-month standoff with the courts.

Fast forward to 2016, Republican incumbent Pat McCrory narrowly lost his bid for a second term as governor by a little more than 10,000 votes to Democrat Roy Cooper.

McCrory’s campaign made numerous challenges to the election, alleging fraud in roughly half of the state’s 100 counties.

His complaints were dismissed.

One complaint focused on heavily Democratic Durham County, where votes that were posted late helped Cooper overtake McCrory in the running tally.

It turned out that Durham’s electronic voting equipment stopped working on the morning of Election Day, a problem that cascaded throughout the day and delayed results. The state asked the federal government to investigate whether Russia or another foreign government had hacked into the county’s elections computers. The federal government found no such evidence.

Another of McCrory’s challenges focused on rural Bladen County. The campaign alleged that a Democratic-aligned group – the Bladen County Improvement PAC – was illegally helping voters fill out mail ballots. During a state elections board hearing into the Bladen allegations, board members probed not only the Bladen PAC – but another group that was working for Republicans, led by operative McCrae Dowless.

McCrory’s allegations in Bladen were dismissed. Cooper became governor. And Bladen County would resurface again two years later – in one of the nation’s biggest election fraud scandals.

The 2016 election came in the midst of North Carolina’s years-long fight over having photo ID — an issue that’s still undecided.

The State Board of Elections did an audit of the 2016 general election, and found that one illegal vote would have been prevented with a photo ID law.

There were 508 ineligible votes overall out of about 4.5 million votes cast that year. The vast majority of those cases were active felons voting before their full sentence was completed.

U.S. Attorney Robert J. Higdon indicted 19 immigrants on charges of illegally voting or aiding illegal voting in the 2016 election, only choosing to prosecute some of them while others received fines.

2018: Bladen County Is The Center Of Scandal

Two years later, in 2018, Republican Congressional candidate Mark Harris appeared to have narrowly defeated Democrat Dan McCready in the 9th District race.

But Joshua Malcom, a former member of the State Board of Elections, led an effort to delay certification of that result because of allegations of fraud concerning absentee mail ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties.

Dowless, the operative who worked for Harris, allegedly collected completed mail ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina. In some cases, operatives working for Dowless filled in incomplete ballots themselves. The state “found itself at the center of national attention” for a case of election fraud, according to Bitzer.

The board called for a new election, which was won by Republican Dan Bishop in 2019. Bishop has become one of the most vociferous voices in North Carolina’s congressional delegation when contesting the 2020 election, saying it was “rigged.”

After the Bladen County scandal, the General Assembly — with a bipartisan vote — passed some reforms. One change was to prohibit people from collecting absentee mail ballot request forms from voters. That was meant to make it difficult for people to sign up large numbers of people for mail voting – the kind of operation Dowless ran in Bladen.

But then came the coronavirus pandemic.

2020: The Fight Over Mail Voting During A Pandemic

Democrats looked to make it easier for people to vote by mail for the 2020 election, and they talked about a number of changes. One was to allow third parties to collect mail ballot request forms. Another was to allow third parties to collect completed mail ballots.

The Republican General Assembly dismissed many of those proposals. But legislators did approve some changes, including only requiring one witness signature on mail ballots instead of two.

The issue appeared settled. But the State Board of Elections – which has a Democratic majority – announced in the fall of 2020 that it was settling a lawsuit that sought to make it easier for people to vote by mail.

The board agreed to allow voters to cure certain deficiencies by an affidavit, rather than fill out and send a replacement ballot. Republicans in the General Assembly criticized the settlement and said the board was making changes to the cure process only the state legislature could make. The settlement also lengthened the post-Election Day period when mailed absentee ballots could arrive at election offices from Nov. 6 to Nov. 12, so long as they were postmarked by 5 p.m. on Election Day.

The courts ended up having the final say on those issues, as they did in Pennsylvania and other states.

In the end, mail ballots were accepted through Nov. 12. But the signature requirement remained, meaning voters could not “cure” a ballot that lacked a witness signature by saying the ballot was theirs and legitimate.

Absentee Ballots In South Carolina

Absentee ballots were also at issue in lawsuits filed in South Carolina. The state has stricter laws for who can use absentee ballots, but lawmakers relaxed the rules to allow residents to vote absentee in 2020 for any reason because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers did not remove the witness requirement.

One federal lawsuit led a federal district judge in Charleston to strike down the witness requirement for the election. Between late September and early October, some South Carolinians received materials with their absentee ballot saying a witness signature was not required.

Appeals in that lawsuit eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which reinstated the witness requirement for ballots received from two days after the ruling. Complicating the decision was the fact that South Carolina law does not allow election officials to contact voters who have submitted absentee ballots with deficiencies, like a missing witness signature.

The South Carolina Elections Commission, which runs elections for the state, also discovered during litigation with a coalition of voter interest groups that at least nine of 46 counties in the state were matching voter signatures on absentee ballots before accepting them. The state had no law requiring signature matching, and Executive Director Marci Andino ordered all counties to stop the practice while processing absentee ballots.

Election Day 2020

Early voting in North Carolina drew its share of complaints, as well. In Anson County,surveillance footage showed a mannamed John Montgomery accompanying voters inside the voting site. Montgomery is the husband of a Democratic candidate for the county’s Register of Deeds.

His actions resulted in nearly 30 complaints to the Anson County Board of Elections for alleged voter interference. State election law says voters must ask for assistance from the chief judge, who leads the operations of each precinct. The State Board of Elections said it was still investigating the complaints. Republican Congressman Bishop shared the footage on social media, saying “Anson County early voting is being run by gangsters.”

After Election Day, North Carolina’s presidential election result was close — President Trump led by 1.3% over Joe Biden — and it was not subject to unfounded legal challenges like those the Trump campaign filed in other battleground states. The closest statewide races were judicial, including for chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Incumbent Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat, initially was behind Republican challenger Paul Newby, a senior associate justice on the court, on election night.

The two traded leads over the nine days after Nov. 3 as county election boards processed absentee-by-mail ballots and provisional ballots. Similar to the 2016 gubernatorial race, Beasley and Newby submitted voter challenges in dozens of counties to disqualify certain absentee ballots or include others that county election boards had deemed deficient or late. Beasley requested two recounts, neither of which changed Newby’s lead by more than a few votes.

After a second, hand recount of some ballots, Newby led by 401 votes and Beasley conceded the race.

North Carolina’s 2020 election formally ended with a vote to certify the final results. On Nov. 24, the North Carolina State Board of Elections met to review data of the election and to vote on certification for all races except for the few still in a recount, including the chief justice race.

Certification is typically a cursory, unanimous vote, but the board had its first dissent in at least a quarter century. Republican board member Tommy Tucker, newly appointed after two previous Republicans resigned after the state board’s lawsuit settlement, voted not to certify the results. He reiterated the arguments of other Republican state lawmakers, saying only the General Assembly could change how absentee ballots were cured, and that the State Board of Elections had acted improperly in settling the lawsuit.

Sign up for our daily headlines newsletter

Select Your Email Format

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.
Michael Falero is a radio reporter, currently covering voting and the 2020 election. He previously covered environment and energy for WFAE. Before joining WFAE in 2019, Michael worked as a producer for a number of local news podcasts based in Charlotte and Boston. He's a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop intensive on Cape Cod and UNC Chapel Hill.