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North Carolina redo recalls a forgotten New Jersey absentee ballot scandal

1976 Democratic primary in Garden State saw some kitchen-table shenanigans

North Carolina Republican Mark Harris upset Rep. Robert Pittenger in the 9th District GOP primary in May. (John D. Simmons /The Charlotte Observer via AP)
North Carolina Republican Mark Harris upset Rep. Robert Pittenger in the 9th District GOP primary in May. (John D. Simmons /The Charlotte Observer via AP)

North Carolina is gearing up for a redo election in the 9th District, which will likely include a new primary, too.

The last rerun of a general election for a House race was in 1975 in Louisiana. But when it comes to primary redos, a 1976 race in New Jersey offers some striking similarities to what’s already happened and what could happen in the Tar Heel State.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections on Thursday unanimously made the call after Republican nominee Mark Harris made a stunning reversal. Taking the stand after lunch on the fourth day of the board’s evidentiary hearing into election fraud, Harris proclaimed it was time for a new election. Up until that point — indeed hours earlier — he and the state GOP were urging the board to certify his 905-vote lead over Democrat Dan McCready from last November. 

Numerous witnesses testified throughout the week that an operative who worked for the Harris campaign, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., ran an absentee ballot collection operation, which is illegal in North Carolina. Harris’ own son testified to having warned his father about hiring Dowless for that very reason. But his father, believing his son to have a “taste of arrogance,” ignored his concerns about Dowless. 

And so Harris and his legal team were forced to reckon with the fact that the tampering with absentee ballots — whether Harris knew about it or not — called into question the Republican’s narrow lead. 

Also watch: What is Ballot Harvesting? Explaining the Mostly Illegal Practice

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Absentee ballots were also the source of scrutiny in New Jersey 43 years ago — coincidentally, in the state’s 9th District — when Democrat Henry Helstoski, the former mayor of East Rutherford, was running for a seventh term. An ongoing federal corruption investigation earned him a primary challenge from a three-term Bergen County assemblyman named Byron Baer. Unfortunately for Helstoski, he was indicted for extortion six days before the primary.

Helstoski still won — but just barely. His original 106-vote margin of victory was much narrower than Harris’ in North Carolina. But then it grew. Party bosses in North Bergen and Union City found 1,642 absentee ballots for him. 

(Former Chris Christie Port Authority appointee and now-reborn Jersey scribe David Wildstein had many more details about the dynamics of the race and the ensuing redo in a blog post from last spring.) 

As was the case in North Carolina, absentee ballots triggered suspicion. Helstoski earned a much higher percentage of the absentee ballot count in Bergen County than he did of the regularly cast ballots. 

An investigation conducted two years later found that absentee ballots were “steamed open and corrected” in the kitchen of a local party chairman.

At the time, Baer challenged the election results in court, arguing there were enough irregularities. Eventually, a superior court judge agreed and ordered a new primary in September. 

North Carolina’s state board hasn’t yet set a date for the redo primary and general election. The GOP-controlled state Legislature passed legislation requiring a new primary, but Democrats have left the door open to challenging that law in court. Harris is said to be considering running again, although after blaming his inability to finish Thursday’s testimony on health reasons, he may have difficulty convincing voters he’s fit enough for a competitive congressional contest. 

In New Jersey, Helstoski did run again in the redo primary — and aggressively, in Wildstein’s telling. Without any pictures in Roll Call’s archives, some physical descriptions may be helpful to set the scene. 

Helstoski boasted a “trademark crew cut,” according to Wildstein, and widespread popularity among both “liberals and old-line conservatives,” according to a New York Times story from the time. He’d held his House seat since 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson was elected president. 

Gottheimer Wishes DC Had More Diners Like New Jersey’s

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Baer, as the Times put it, was “a bit pudgy, wears a smal [sic] mustache and peers out from behind hornrimmed glasses, and he has, he would be the first to concede, about as much charisma as a compilation of election statistics. To engage in conversation with him is to risk a marathon recapitulation of everything anyone could ever want to know about him or his legislative record.”

The Times gave Baer “a good chance” of winning that September primary because Helstoski was “preoccupied” with his legal troubles.  

But with the North Bergen and Union City machines behind him, Helstoski prevailed 55 percent to 45 percent in a heavy-turnout election.

He wasn’t so lucky in the general election. Republican Harold Hollenbeck, a former state legislator, unseated him 54 percent to 46 percent. Six years later, Hollenbeck lost to Robert G. Torricelli, and the seat has remained in Democratic hands since. 

Herb Jackson contributed to this report. 

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