In December 2016, I wrote a column for the Raleigh News & Observer stating that North Carolina could no longer be classified as a democracy. It went viral and global. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued. The majority of feedback was positive, but in some quarters, I was described as a queer-communist-anti-American, and received scores of visceral email and voice messages to that effect and worse. Campus security were concerned about the specificity of some of the death threats.
The column was based on an analysis of the crumbling machinery of democracy in my state, drawing on my expertise as a professor of comparative politics at the University of North Carolina. I noted that a neutral expert scoring of North Carolina’s electoral integrity had placed the state on a par with pseudo-democracies such as Cuba, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. Partisan gerrymandering and targeted voter suppression drove the score lower. Combined with that, the General Assembly had targeted the LGBTQ community for discrimination (you may remember the push to force transgender people to use the restroom for the sex listed on their birth certificate), and Republicans had sought to curtail executive powers after losing the governorship in the 2016 elections.
Story Continued Below
I argued then that as a state, we needed to “claw our way slowly toward democratic integrity … [and] address the institutional failures which have cost us our democratic ranking—districting, equal access to the vote and the abuse of legislative power.”
Two years later, the quality of democracy has declined further, and the decaying system has created a monster.
The North Carolina GOP is not particularly interested in what the voters think because they don’t have to be: They have effective detached themselves from the electoral accountability that underpins democracy.
The most egregious example of this is exploding now. There is a wealth of evidence that Republicans in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District systematically—and with malicious forethought and planning—stole the election. A paid Republican operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, reportedly oversaw a team that fraudulently gathered absentee ballots, marked an unknown number for Harris and destroyed others. Once all votes were counted, Republican Mark Harris was 905 votes ahead (or four-tenths of a percentage point) over his Democratic opponent Dan McCready.
Dowless’ stomping ground is Bladen County, a relatively poor, rural, southern part of the state. Harris received an abnormally high number of absentee votes in the county, and a number of absentee voters have already complained that their votes were stolen. What’s more, it looks like Dowless has been doing this for Republican candidates for close to a decade. In the May GOP primary, Harris managed to receive 98 percent of absentee votes in Bladen, despite winning just 48 percent of the votes districtwide. In that primary, Harris defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Bob Pittenger by a mere 800 votes.
What happened in the 9th District is not an aberration. It is the foreseeable manifestation of a democracy that has lost its way.
Gerrymandering has allowed North Carolina Republicans to hold on to comfortable majorities in both houses of the State Assembly—and 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats—despite winning only half of the aggregate popular vote statewide. Now, in the last 2018 session of their supermajority legislature, Republicans have gone about gutting the democratic institutions of the state. Voter ID measures were introduced with the deliberate intent of suppressing lower-income and minority voters. There were attempts to take election administration appointments away from the governor, and a blatant power grab over judicial appointments was condemned by five former governors and six former state Supreme Court justices.
Key symptoms of incipient democratic breakdown include extreme demagogues being considered part of the mainstream, and public officials losing their moral center and trading in principles for gain. We see both in ample supply in North Carolina.
In 2017, Republican state Representative Larry Pittman said that President Abraham Lincoln “was the same sort [of] tyrant” as Adolf Hitler. He faced no repercussions from his fellow Republicans. Earlier this year, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Pittman said that school shooters were often “communist Democrats” seeking gun control—again, without consequence.
One former member of the GOP’s legislative caucus, Thom Goolsby, who left the state Senate under a cloud after having his investment adviser license revoked, was later appointed to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors. From that perch, he’s made a vociferous case to re-erect “Silent Sam” on UNC’s campus—a statue that, in glorifying the Confederacy, celebrates violent attacks on the U.S. Constitution and American citizens.
But perhaps the best encapsulation of the GOP zeitgeist in North Carolina can be found in the case of Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state’s Republican Party, who has recently demonstrated that partisan considerations trump respect for the law. In 2016, when there were accusations of election fraud in the 9th Congressional District’s Republican primary, Woodhouse said that, “should the election board find that these are absentee-ballot mills, with the purpose of fraudulent voting, those people should go to jail.” But this past Tuesday, when that same Board of Elections cited “concerted fraudulent activities” in the election and declined to certify its results, Woodhouse railed against the decision and called for Harris to be seated immediately. Then, two days later, he decided that with such obvious cheating, a new election might be the only way to hold on to the seat, so he withdrew his objection to a new election in the district.
When the bond between the representatives and the represented is severed, you get mob rule in the offices of power. Sadly, North Carolina Republicans seem to see the principle of government based on the will of the people as subservient to the principle of clinging to power. They would prefer that the people’s will align with their own worldview, but don’t view the people’s support as necessary to govern; if they can get their way without a democratic mandate, then so be it.