A brief history of North Carolina’s 9th District contested election – in 1898

North Carolina is redoing an election to decide who will represent its 9th Congressional District, after an investigation uncovered evidence of election fraud during the 2018 midterms.

According to a recently completed investigation by the North Carolina Board of Elections, a political operative working on behalf of Republican candidate Mark Harris carried out a “coordinated, unlawful, and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme” that may have provided Harris with hundreds of fraudulent votes.

The political operative paid friends and family members in cash to collect uncompleted absentee ballots, fill them out and then mail them in to the polls. During the investigation, Harris’ son testified that he had warned his father that the absentee ballot scheme was illegal.

Harris led by 905 votes on election day, but the Board of Elections never certified the result and soon began investigating. Speaking to supporters on Feb. 22, Dan McCready, the Democratic candidate, denounced the alleged fraud as perhaps “the biggest case of election fraud in living memory.”

My research on voter intimidation and election fraud in the late 19th-century United States focuses on contested congressional elections much like this one. One of the most interesting cases I have researched took place in that very same district, the North Carolina 9th, in 1898.

A century of redistricting has shifted the boundaries of the 9th District substantially. But comparing the fraud and intimidation then to the alleged fraud of 2018 provides critical context for understanding weaknesses in U.S. elections.

What to expect when you’re contesting

Contested elections happen when one candidate challenges the announced result as illegitimate.

Such cases were far more common in the late 19th century as Republicans battled resurgent white supremacist Democrats for control of districts in the South. In the 1890s alone, there were 78 contested congressional election cases, more than half emerging from states that had seceded during the Civil War.

There were so many contested elections in this era in large part because voting happened in the open, without the protection of secrecy. When voters went to the polls in the 9th District in 1898, they picked up pre-printed ballots from party workers outside the polls and placed them in the ballot box – in full view of the community. Everyone could see who they voted for, including employers and party operatives who often sought to bribe or intimidate voters.

The lack of secrecy at the polls meant that the intimidators and bribers were also visible. Candidates who lost close elections were often able to present Congress with eyewitness evidence of the corrupt methods used against their voters.

Coercion at the polls became such a crisis that many states, under pressure from reform advocates, including the Knights of Labor, the nation’s largest labor union at the time, adopted secret ballots between 1888 and 1892.

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon from 1888 depicts ticket pushers in New York City. William Allen Rogers,
Southern states lagged far behind in the trend towards ballot secrecy. North Carolina in particular failed to enact a secret ballot law until 1929.

The 1898 midterm congressional elections were contentious, and in North Carolina’s 9th District the campaign was vicious all the way to the end. Allies of the Democratic candidate, William Crawford, waged a campaign of racial terror. They gave inflammatory speeches, attacked Republican-leaning voters, stuffed ballot boxes, and lynched an African-American man the night before the election in an effort to terrorize African-Americans away from the polls.

When Crawford was declared the winner by just 218 votes, his Republican opponent, Richmond Pearson, accused Crawford of stealing the election through “bribery, intimidation, and irregularities” in the ballot counting process.

Pearson collected extensive witness testimony, which is documented in the papers of the House Committee on Elections, housed in the National Archives and more briefly in Chester Rowell’s historical and legal digest of election cases.