The results in North Carolina’s 9th District haven’t been certified after allegations against a contractor for Republican Mark Harris.
Fighting voter fraud has been a Republican rallying cry for years. But the GOP now finds one of its own candidates at the center of the biggest alleged election fraud in recent memory.
North Carolina’s Board of Elections has postponed certifying election results in the state’s 9th Congressional District, where Republican Mark Harris holds a 905-vote lead over Democrat Dan McCready — and a contractor working for Harris’ campaign has been accused of collecting and filling out hundreds of voters’ absentee ballots.
The allegations run counter to longtime complaints from President Donald Trump and Republicans about supposed Democratic voter fraud, and they come at an especially awkward time for the state GOP in North Carolina. The party just championed a voter-ID referendum approved in November, and Republican state legislators are pushing to approve language implementing the referendum during a lame-duck session, before they lose their veto-proof majorities in January.
“I think you should wait and see if there was actually fraud here. [But] if voter fraud was committed by Republicans, then yes, that would be ironic,” said Carter Wrenn, a Republican consultant based in North Carolina who is not affiliated with either campaign.
Another North Carolina Republican operative, granted anonymity to speak candidly, acknowledged that there’s “a bit of a role reversal going on here.”
On Friday, the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement called for an evidentiary hearing by Dec. 21 to consider “claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities” during the campaign, particularly over absentee ballot collection. That day, The Associated Press also retracted its call that Harris had won, adding that it was “treating the board’s action as if the race has proceeded to a recount.”
Incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday that House Democrats would not vote to seat Harris until that investigation “is resolved.”
“The House has, as you know, the authority over the propriety of the election,” Hoyer said. “He has not been certified yet, they have refused to certify him. So at this point in time he is not eligible for being sworn into the House.”
The state board could even vote to order a new election, setting up a rematch between Harris and McCready in 2019, depending on the outcome of its investigation. Leslie McCrae Dowless, the “independent contractor who worked on grassroots for the [Harris] campaign,” denied any wrongdoing, The Charlotte Observer reported.
But Republicans have argued that any irregularities are not widespread enough to make a difference in the ultimate outcome of the race. However, the board hasn’t publicly disclosed how many ballots are in question.
“The board needs to have a public hearing and lay out what they have, and unless they meet the standard of a substantial likelihood, numerically, that the outcome of this race was changed or could have been changed, then they need to certify Mark Harris as the winner and prosecute the offenders,” said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party. “Certifying the race is not related to continuing a criminal investigation or multiple criminal investigations, which are obviously going to need to continue.”
At issue are absentee ballot returns in Bladen and Robeson counties in rural eastern North Carolina. An analysis by Catawba College’s J. Michael Bitzer found that McCready won lopsided majorities of absentee ballots in seven of the eight counties that comprise the 9th District, except in Bladen County. Harris won 61 percent of the mail-in ballots there, even though registered Republicans accounted for 19 percent of the county’s accepted absentee ballots.
The North Carolina Democratic Party filed a half-dozen affidavits from voters in the area, who described handing over their ballots, some of them incomplete, to people who said they were assigned to pick up ballots in the area.
Bitzer also noted that Bladen and Robeson counties had unusually high percentages of requested absentee ballots that were never returned. In Robeson County, nearly two-thirds of the ballots were not returned, while Bladen had 40 percent that were not sent back. Those are high rates of non-return, as no other county exceeded 27 percent.
“There was either a massive push to get voters to request those mail-in ballots and the voters just didn’t respond, or there was some other event that precluded the returning of those ballots,” Bitzer said. “If people were going around and collecting the ballots, and the ballots were not secured and either manipulated or done away with, then that might, potentially, be part of it.”
Outgoing GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger, who lost to Harris in a May primary, acknowledged in an interview with Spectrum News North Carolina last week that “there’s some pretty unsavory people, particularly in Bladen County, and I didn’t have anything to do with them. Let me just leave it at that.”
Andy Yates, a general consultant on Harris’ campaign, told The Washington Post that Harris “was aware” of his firm’s “relationship with Mr. Dowless and believes like I do that Mr. Dowless operated within the bounds of the law.”
The state Board of Elections, charged with conducting the investigation, is also in turmoil. On Saturday, Andy Penry resigned from the chairmanship after he came under fire for posts on social media, including criticism of President Donald Trump. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper elevated a new chairman on Monday to lead the investigation, as well as appointing Robert Cordle to the board’s vacancy, triggering further accusations of partisanship.
“Per usual, Governor Cooper takes a bad situation and makes it worse by continuing to erode confidence in the neutrality of the board,” North Carolina GOP Chairman Robin Hayes said in a statement released Monday, calling Cordle “another hyper-partisan Democrat.”
The board, appointed by the governor, is made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and one non-partisan member. It voted 7-2 last week to investigate the vote in the 9th District.