There’s no small irony to the fact that, the same week lame-duck Republicans conjured up their solution to a voter-fraud problem that doesn’t exist, the world got a close-up look at what actual election fraud looks like in North Carolina.

Last month, of course, voters approved a details-free constitutional amendment requiring residents to produce a photo ID to vote. On Thursday, the General Assembly—where Republicans have veto-proof supermajorities for just a few more weeks—put meat on the bone, passing a voter ID bill crafted to avoid running afoul of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which denounced their last attempt as targeting “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The 2013 iteration used racial data to exclude forms of ID commonly used by African Americans. Senate Bill 824 permits a wider range of IDs, including a new free ID card that local elections boards can issue. Those who lack ID will have to vote provisionally and then either file an affidavit claiming a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining an ID or present their ID to the county election board before the results are certified.

While less strict than its predecessor, the bill would still “discriminate against and disenfranchise marginalized voters,” the state ACLU and Equality NC said in a statement. In South Carolina, the statement points out, African Americans comprise a disproportionate percentage of voters who were forced to vote provisionally—and their ballots often weren’t counted because they didn’t return to the elections office to show their ID.

Legislative Democrats have offered mostly muted objections, arguing that SB 824 should be taken up by the next General Assembly, in which Democrats will have more sway, rather than rushed through in a special session. Governor Cooper could veto the bill, but, thanks to their unconstitutionally gerrymandered legislative districts, Republicans will have the votes to override him.

SB 824, and the amendment that enabled it, followed years of Republican hyperventilation over supposed voter fraud, which the data shows is an exceedingly rare bird. A state audit conducted after the 2016 election found that voter ID would have prevented exactly one illegal vote out of nearly five million votes cast. In other words, this is a pointless endeavor—except if the point is to place one more obstacle in front of brown and black voters. (The upside: Despite their intent, voter ID doesn’t appear to be all that effective in suppressing turnout.)

While Republicans have obsessed about voter impersonation—which is virtually nonexistent—they’ve gotten less hot and bothered about absentee voter fraud, perhaps because absentee voters tend to support Republicans. In 2013, legislative Republicans rejected a proposal to tighten absentee ballot restrictions, and it took the massive scandal brewing in the Ninth Congressional District to convince them to even feign interest in the matter: A last-minute amendment to SB 824 tasks county election boards with figuring out some way to require absentee voters to show ID.

It’s unclear whether that requirement would have prevented the possible fraud in the Ninth District, where Charlotte political operative McCrae Dowless Jr., who previously served time for insurance fraud, was hired to run an absentee-ballot initiative for Republican Mark Harris, a fundamentalist preacher who has proclaimed that women should do what their husbands tell them and that Islam is the spawn of Satan. (Harris’s campaign paid the consulting firm Red Dome Group, which contracted with Dowless, $525,000 during this election cycle, Reuters reported Friday.) Dowless delivered: When the ballots were counted, Harris was ahead of Democrat Dan McCready by about nine hundred votes—a margin attributable to Harris’s success with absentee voters in Bladen and Robeson Counties.

But then, in a stunning move, the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement refused to certify the results. Over the last week, it’s become clear why: Something fishy went on. In Bladen County, for example, Harris won 61 percent of absentee votes even though registered Republicans only accounted for 19 percent of accepted absentee ballots. In both Bladen and Robeson, an unusually high number of voters requested absentee ballots but didn’t return them. The ballots that were returned overwhelmingly supported Harris—96 percent, in fact, in Bladen County.

Dowless’s employees appear to have descended on low-income apartment complexes and gotten people to fill out absentee ballot request forms. When the ballots came back, the employees offered to take the voters’ unsealed ballots and mail them in for them, which is illegal.

Dowless and Harris have denied wrongdoing. But a new election—either called by the state elections board or the U.S. House—seems increasingly likely. The evidence of wrongdoing is so overwhelming that even Dallas Woodhouse, the head of the state GOP who initially downplayed reports of irregularities, has signaled an openness to a new election. (Woodhouse also told CNN that Harris was a “good man” who wouldn’t have been involved in illegal activities. We’ll see: According to the Post, the elections board has evidence that high-ranking campaign officials knew what Dowless was up to.)

Here’s the crazy thing: The state Republican Party was warned about Dowless’s activities months ago. After U.S. Representative Robert Pittenger lost the May primary to Harris by 828 votes—again, thanks in part to Dowless’s absentee efforts in Bladen County—he reportedly told GOP officials about ballot stuffing in Bladen County. But the party did nothing. And that’s one of the more revelatory details about this sordid affair: Despite years of dire warnings about stolen elections, state Republicans, when confronted with credible allegations of actual fraud, looked the other way. Winning the seat was more important.

Which makes you think maybe—just maybe—all of that fraud-related caterwauling wasn’t entirely on the level.

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman by email at, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @jeffreybillman.

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