North Carolina’s 9th congressional district cozies up to a long stretch of the South Carolina border, running from the Charlotte area to near Fayetteville.
It’s a district currently without a representative.
Last November it appeared Republican Mark Harris had squeezed out a win in the 9th, which has been held by Republicans since 1963. Harris had defeated incumbent Republican Robert Pittenger in the GOP primary and held a 900 vote lead over Democrat Dan McCready following the election. Harris carried himself with the air of a man confident he’d soon be seated in Congress.
But that was not to be.
Following a months-long investigation into election fraud that centered on allegations Leslie McCrae Dowless, who’d been paid more than $100,000 by the Harris camp, had been monkeying around with absentee ballots, the results of the November mid-terms were tossed out and a new election scheduled for May.
Contested elections are nothing new in North Carolina, although having an election tossed is a rarity. However, the situation in the 9th brings back memories of another election rhubarb, one that dominated the front page of the Jackson County Journal back in May of 1931. The election in question, at least on paper, wasn’t nearly as close of the razor-thin margin in the 9th; instead, allegations were raised that tens of thousands of votes were somehow fraudulent in the U.S. Senate race of 1930.
From the Journal, May 7, 1931:
* * *
BALLOT BOXES TO BE IMPOUNDED
An order signed by Judge Webb of the United States District Court has been served upon Aaron Hooper, chairman of the board of elections of Jackson County, and upon Dan Allison, clerk of the Superior Court, impounding the ballot boxes and ballots cast in the senatorial election of last November.
The order is the same as that served in many counties of the state, and orders the ballots turned over to the clerk of the superior court and the senatorial committee that is to hear the charges in the senatorial contest instituted by George Pritchard, Republican candidate for the senate, against Sen. Josiah W. Bailey, who was declared elected by a majority of something over 113,000 votes.
Mr. Hooper has called upon the precinct registrars to turn over the ballots to the clerk of court of Jackson County, pursuant to the order of the federal court. The order impounding the boxes was served upon Mr. Hooper late Monday evening by officers of the United States.
Mr. Pritchard charges in his contest complaint that there were “gross irregularities” in the election, and that a fair count would have shown him to have received a majority.
When the marhsals began to carry out the court orders, Dennis G. Brummit, state attorney general, by direction of Gov. O. Max Gardner, wired the judges asking for the orders to be vacated.
At the same time, Josiah W. Bailey, Democrat, whose election to the U.S. Senate former Rep. George M. Pritchard, defeated Republican candidate, is contesting, requested a hearing in the proceedings.
Bailey said he would ask the orders “be vacated as an invasion of the rights of the State of North Carolina as well as mine, and void.”
He asserted state authorities “have all time been willing and able to protect and preserve the ballots and under proper procedure make them available to the senate.”
The state, in its notice of intervention, also asked courts that “the state and Sen. Bailey be given an opportunity to be heard at such early date as may be fixed by you.”
The three jurists – Judge Johnson J. Hayes of the Middle North Carolina district; Judge I.M. Meekins, of the Eastern District, and Judge E. Yates Webb of the Western District, immediately wired replies. They notified the state they were ready to entertain a motion of intervention.
Dennis G. Brummit, attorney general, dispatched the following telegrams to Judge Meekins, Hayes and Webb, who signed the orders:
“By direction of Gov. Gardner the State of North Carolina will intervene in proceedings filed in your court yesterday in the matter of the election contest of Pritchard against Bailey.
“The State respectfully asks that the order entered by you yesterday be vacated at once for there is no authority vested in the petitioner’s authorizing, empowering or directing them to institute said proceeding and that the court is without authority to grant said order, and for that the said order was made without notice or opportunity to be heard by Sen. Bailey or any official of this state.
“The State respectfully asks that boxes and ballots already seized be immediately placed in the custody of your court, further action under the order be discontinued, that the State and Sen. Bailey be given opportunity to be heard at such early date as may be fixed by you. Please wire reply.”
The Journal’s Dan Tompkins was having none of it. In an article running alongside the court order, Tompkins wrote: “The State of North Carolina, through the Governor and Attorney General, has entered into the Pritchard-Bailey Senatorial contest, by protesting the invasion of the rights of the State, by the federal courts. North Carolina has no objection to a full and complete investigation of the charges of fraud and corruption brought by Mr. Pritchard, flimsy and frivolous as most North Carolinians believe them to be; but the State wants the thing done in proper manner, without the federal courts infringing upon the dignity of the Sovereign State. Every invasion of the rights of the states by the federal government should always be resisted, for it is only through maintaining the sovereignty of the States that our system of government can be perpetuated.”
* * *
Now, there’s little doubt that polling places were ground zero for all kind of hijinks for much of this state’s history. Vote buying, voting from the cemetery, ballot box stuffing, keeping legal voters away from the polls and more have been a sad hallmark of a system that we’ve made major inroads in improving but are still trying to get right.
But even back in the heyday of creative electoral engineering during an election, stealing more than 100,000 votes would be quite a trick.
That’s what Pritchard said had transpired.
The day before Sen.-elect Bailey’s term began, Pritchard filed a petition contesting North Carolina’s voting procedures that was referred to the Senate’s Committee on Privileges and Elections. Pritchard tried to build a case that the state’s laws were tilted to give Democrats a lopsided advantage in elections, citing, among other things, that the entirety of the state’s 1,800 registrars were Democrats and thus had plenty of opportunities to manipulate polls lists and voter registrations.
A resolution was presented that the Senate spend $10,000 to look into the matter, but Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas, Democratic Minority Leader, protested, citing the complaint’s lack of substance. Pritchard’s original petition was reviewed, as was Bailey’s request that the matter be dismissed. Pritchard was allowed to submit an amended petition with more details.
Itemizing the types of fraud he thought could be proven, Pritchard turned in a list of 42 North Carolina counties he hoped would be targeted for investigation.
Bailey pointed out that even if all the votes in the 42 counties targeted by Pritchard were thrown out, a recount would be pointless because in the remaining 58 counties, Bailey still would have won by 71,000 votes.
No action in the matter was taken until 1933, when a recommendation was issued by a Senate subcommittee that the matter be dismissed, mainly on the grounds that the charges leveled by Pritchard were so vague that the expense and time that would have been spent pursuing them couldn’t be justified, especially considered the walloping margin of Bailey’s win.
In the end, the U.S. Senate awarded Pritchard $4,000, Bailey $1,500 and the state of North Carolina $500 and bid them adieu.
Bailey went on to serve in the Senate until his death in 1946.