North Carolina’s 9th Congressional district went from one hot mess to one of the most blatant, out-in-the-open examples of election fraud in recent memory. Because of that, we probably won’t know if there will be a new election anytime soon – especially after the state elections board was just dissolved. But was it simply ballot thefts or “harvesting” that led to all of this in the first place?
A deeper answer takes us to an unexpected place: Climate change.
In North Carolina, it’s supposedly illegal for anyone other than a relative to turn in an absentee ballot for a voter. Thanks to Hurricane Florence in September, however, that all changed. Praised by the NAACP just prior to the 2018 midterm as a “victory for voters,” restrictions on absentee ballots were relaxed in a well-intentioned effort to make it easier for displaced residents to vote.
With so many North Carolinians displaced, and right before the elections, voters were permitted to return their complete absentee ballots to any early voting site or elections office anywhere in the state. That seemed convenient, nothing more than a harmless and sensible solution at the time.
But no one imagined Republican candidate Mark Harris (except, well, Mark Harris), or any candidate for that matter, would use the situation to steal ballots.
LEVERAGING NATURAL DISASTER FOR POLITICAL GAIN
In North Carolina’s 9th House district, attempts to politically advantage the Republican candidate led Harris to win by 905 votes. Results of an investigation into election fraud, however, suggest that a minimum of 800 ballots were “harvested” and held by a member of the Harris campaign. Specifically, a man by the name of McCrae Dowless and his company Red Dome Group.
Dowless was already associated with an investigation of election fraud in 2016. Yet, undeterred, Harris hired him anyway.
In North Carolina, it is illegal for anyone other than a family member to turn in an absentee ballot for another voter. Dowless was seen holding 800 ballots by a man named Kenneth Simmons and his wife. They immediately reported him to authorities and now the outcome of that election as well as other elections Dowless was associated with are under intense scrutiny.
In the election between Harris and McCready, if the State Board of Elections calls for a do-over, state law requires that a new general election be held. The General Assembly, though, just passed a bill mandating that a new primary election would also need to be held. That bill would still need to be signed into law to go into effect. The State Board of Elections is scheduled to hold a hearing regarding the election on Jan 11, 2019. In the meantime, the Board refuses to certify the race. North Carolina Republicans, however, are pressing election officials to certify the election despite mounting evidence that it was anything but legitimate.
Dowless simply used a natural disaster for political gain … and he won. He effectively blurred the lines between early voting sites and illegal ballot harvesting as a way to collect and hold mass amounts of ballots in counties that were both heavily Black and heavily Democratic.
In essence, Hurricane Florence blew open the doors to election fraud in North Carolina.
THE GERRYMANDERING FACTOR
On the surface, it may seem like the accusations of election fraud have little to do with this ugly process called “gerrymandering.” A deeper look into NC-9 (as it’s dubbed), however, shows us that election fraud in North Carolina has everything to do with gerrymandering. And gerrymandering has everything to do with the spaces and neighborhoods where people live – or they are displaced from.
In North Carolina, state legislators draw the map for Congressional districts. This map can’t be vetoed by the Governor.
There are 13 Congressional districts in North Carolina. Ten of them are held by Republicans. Republican and Democratic voters are evenly split. You can just look at the map of North Carolina’s Congressional districts and know something isn’t quite right there.
It’s so bad that the campus of North Carolina A&T, the largest historically Black public college in the United States, is split in two by a Congressional districting line. A panel of federal judges declared the Congressional districts illegal, but it was ruled that they wouldn’t have to be redrawn until after the Nov. 6, 2018 midterm elections. There just wasn’t enough time.
North Carolina’s 9th District looks a lot like a ladle. Resting on top of it is the 8th district and nestling it’s base to the east is North Carolina’s 7th district. One county seems oddly carved out of NC-9 and added on to NC-8 while both NC-8 and NC-7 are formed by carving two of NC-9’s counties in half.
Missing in many news reports is the fact that NC-9 is racially diverse. Of it’s approximately 750,000 residents, 60 percent identify as white, 18 percent are black, 9 percent identify as Hispanic and 8 percent are indigenous. North Carolina, in fact, boasts the third largest number of indigenous residents of all 50 states.
But what if Hoke County, with its population of 54,000, hadn’t been carved out of NC-9? It’s a “minority-majority” county where 40 percent identify as White and not Hispanic, 35 percent of its residents are Black, 13 percent are Hispanic, and 9 percent are Native American.
Instead, Cumberland and Bladen Counties are the two that were split in half in order to form the bottom of NC-9. Bladen County has about 35,000 people, 34 percent of which are black. Cumberland County has 333,000 people and 39 percent are black.
If the votes of people of color – especially Black voters – had not been diluted by what the federal court has already ruled as unconstitutional Congressional redistricting, this House race in 2018 would have never been as close. A political hack like Dowless wouldn’t have been able to sway an election by pocketing a few hundred or even a few thousand ballots. Gerrymandering, aggravated further by Hurricane Florence, put victory in reach for the Republican Party. Election fraud brought the win home (well, almost).
CLIMATE CHANGE & VOTER SUPPRESSION: AN INTERSECTION
The cautionary tale of NC-9 should in no way suggest that we shouldn’t make voting easier for displaced victims of environmental disasters.
But as climate crisis brings on more frequent and stronger calamities, our political and electoral processes will be impacted. Voters and potential voters will find their ability to access an election made more difficult. Steps to help displaced voters adapt to these changes will be critical in ensuring free, fair and open elections. In doing so, governments and organizers alike will need to protect affected voters from election fraud and theft.
This will take planning. Clearly, organizers and voter mobilization advocates in North Carolina didn’t think their good intentions would open the door to ballot harvesting. Planning that didn’t go into Florida’s post-hurricane election response left the door open for Bay County to illegally accept votes by email and fax after Hurricane Michael.
The problem, still, is that nearly 40 percent of all Black citizens in the United States live in climate change high impact zones, including coastal areas vulnerable to intense hurricanes. So long as Republicans continue to target Black voters in a bid dilute the Democratic vote, there is little chance that people with the skills and understanding necessary to strategically counter those efforts will be put in positions necessary to design electoral disaster response plans.
This brings us back to gerrymandering. And once again, we find ourselves standing squarely in the field of environmental justice.
Congressional redistricting is currently based on political demographic – and race positing as political demographics. Districts are supposedly comprised of “communities of interest.” According to the Brannan Center, “A good redistricting process should help a community secure meaningful representation. Many states consider ‘communities of interest’ when drawing their districts and that’s a good place to start. Community of interest is a term for groups of people who share common social, cultural, racial, economic, geographic, or other concerns. These groups are likely to have similar legislative interests as well, and that means they can benefit from common representation in the government.”
Still, this common understanding of shared interests misses collective environmental interests. With the consequences of climate change already disrupting federal elections, actions rooted in environmental interest are already being taken even if the process doesn’t formally recognize it, yet. This informal, haphazard, and reactionary response to climate driven disasters and displacement has left the door open for election fraud in places such as Florida and North Carolina. And it promises to get worse if we’re not more aware.
Communities grouped by proximity to flood zones, lowlands, and other storm related danger zones should have a shared interest that is formally prioritized in the Congressional redistricting process. This is especially relevant for Black voters since Black citizens are disproportionately redlined into communities that are decimated by climate driven (or carbon driven) disasters.
Environmental communities of interest may also form around other hazards such as high-pollution zones like those seen around oil refineries and many other production factories. These communities are also largely comprised of people of color who share a common interest in protecting themselves from illness and injury.
Communities of interest don’t need to connect solely on proximity to harm and disaster, though. The idea that communities and districts should be drawn on the basis of natural interests and not political interests is not new. In fact, indigenous communities were formed in direct relationship to the land and its ecosystems. The Native American communities still hold the know-how to return to this model of community building, but environmentalism as a movement has largely a been held by White environmental scholars that don’t understand the critical intersections between race and the environment.
Where political affiliation can be used to fracture the power of non-white voting blocs – especially Black voting blocs – environmental interests can be used to bring those communities back together. That not keeps fiascos like NC-9 from happening, but it guarantees a government that’s fully representative and, in the case of climate change, fully responsive.