Electoral fraud claims roil North Carolina House race

An ongoing investigation into election fraud allegations and other voting irregularities has roiled a U.S. House race in North Carolina, raising the prospects that a new election could be called.

State officials are investigating fraud claims surrounding absentee ballots in the state’s 9th District, which prompted the North Carolina State Board of Elections to vote in favor of holding an evidentiary hearing by Dec. 21.

The unusual claims center around groups of people who went around collecting absentee ballots from voters in violation of North Carolina law, which says only voters themselves can mail in ballots.

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Republican pastor Mark HarrisMark HarrisNorth Carolina on cusp of House race reset North Carolina GOP operative accused of once possessing over 800 absentee ballots The Hill's Morning Report — Takeaways from the battle royal in the Oval Office MORE narrowly leads Democratic veteran and businessman Dan McCready by 905 votes. McCready, a top recruit for Democrats, didn’t call for a recount and conceded shortly after the Nov. 6 election. 

Harris defeated Rep. Robert PittengerRobert Miller PittengerNorth Carolina on cusp of House race reset NC GOP will call for new election if early votes were leaked NC Dems call on GOP candidate to answer questions about alleged electoral fraud MORE (R) in the May primary for his reliably red seat, which borders South Carolina and includes the Charlotte suburbs.

But the growing uncertainty around the race led to the state Board of Elections to refuse certification of the 9th District results. That is raising the potential that either the state elections board or the U.S. House of Representatives itself could call for a new election, a rare and likely unprecedented step for a federal race in North Carolina.

“There is nothing at this scale and at this federal level to say that North Carolina has experienced this before,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.

“This is a whole new day. A lot of people in North Carolina were stunned by last Tuesday’s decision to not certify the election.” 

The state elections board will continue investigating, but the unfolding drama and turmoil has brought the race to the national spotlight. North Carolina’s 9th District is one of the last unresolved House races of the 2018 elections after Democrats won back the House last month, flipping at least 39 seats.

Bladen County has been a focal point of the investigation. The rural county recorded one of the highest numbers of mail-in absentee ballot requests but also saw an unusually high numbers of unreturned ballots.

Unofficial results from the Nov. 6 election show that Harris holds the edge over McCready in absentee ballots in Bladen. According to The Washington Post, the rate of returned ballots was much higher among white voters than those of African-American and Native American voters, who are typically Democratic-leaning voters.  

Voter affidavits from Bladen County submitted to the state elections board allege instances of people coming to their house and asking voters to hand in their absentee ballots and encouraging residents to leave some races blank.

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., who has ties to the Harris campaign, is at the center of the state’s fraud investigation, according to the affidavits.

Dowless, Bladen County’s Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor, has worked in local political circles for years. 

Andy Yates, a top strategist for Harris, told The Charlotte Observer that Dowless was an “independent contractor who worked on grass roots for the campaign.”

Dowless was convicted for fraud and felony perjury in the 1990s. He’s named several times in voter affidavits and a couple of absentee ballot witnesses said they worked with Dowless.

One of those witnesses, Ginger Eason, told TV station WSOC that Dowless paid her between $75 and $100 to pick up absentee ballots. Eason said she didn’t look at voters’ ballots and never mailed them.

Another woman, Cheryl Kinlaw, told the station that he also paid her to collect ballots, saying that she didn’t think it was illegal because Dowless “has been doing it for years.”

It’s unclear when exactly the elections board will hold its evidentiary hearing, especially since the future of the body itself remains in limbo.

A court stay to keep the current structure intact is set to expire Dec. 12. The board was deemed unconstitutional by a court ruling, arguing that it limited the governor’s authority.

It’s unclear if another extension will be requested, but if the current makeup of the nine-member board gets dissolved, it could possibly go back to being five members, with the governor’s party holding a majority.

There’s also been drama surrounding the board’s chairman. 

Gov. Roy Cooper (D) tapped Joshua Malcolm, who was vice chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, as the new chairman after Democratic chairman Andy Penry resigned over GOP complaints about past partisan comments.

The state elections board has the authority to call for a new election regarding four criteria. If it decides to call for a new one, McCready, Harris and libertarian Jeff Scott would again face each other in a new general election.

According to the statute permitting the board to call new elections, at least five board members must agree.

One of the criteria for a new election includes “irregularities or improprieties” that “taint results” or “cast doubt” on the election’s fairness. Bitzer, a political scientist, argues it will be up to the board to define tainted results in this context.

“There’s no definition of what [tainted results] means,” Bitzer said. “That’s going to be a discretionary decision by the board.”

Republicans have called for the certification of the race, making the argument that there aren’t enough absentee ballots “in question” to change the election’s outcome.

Another criteria stipulates that a new election can be called if “eligible voters sufficient in number to change the outcome of the election were improperly prevented from voting.”

“There has to be enough votes in question to possibly change the outcome,” said Dallas Woodhouse, the North Carolina Republican Party executive director, according to The Charlotte Observer. 

Woodhouse has said he supports the investigation but wants certification of the results.

But even if it didn’t match that one criteria, it’s possible the board could rule on one of the other three.

“Just because the election results may not necessarily change, was there enough to cast doubt on the election?” Bitzer said. “Honestly, we may not know enough about the missing ballots, about manipulated ballots to say there wasn’t a change in the end results.”

Bitzer believes the incoming Democratic majority in the U.S. House will be the “ultimate judge.” 

If the House calls for a new race, that triggers a new filing process, which would involve both the primaries and the general election — providing Pittenger another chance to retain his seat. They also have the authority not to seat a new lawmaker.

On Tuesday, Rep. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerPelosi agrees to term limits vote; insurgency collapses Tim Ryan backs term limits deal with Pelosi Dem rep says term limits should be considered for House leadership MORE (D-Md.), the incoming majority leader, said the House shouldn’t seat Harris if questions surrounding the fraud allegations aren’t resolved when new members are sworn in on Jan. 3.

“The House ... has the authority over the propriety of the election. This is a very substantial question [and] it ought to be resolved before we seat any member,” Hoyer told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday. “If there is what appears to be a very substantial question on the integrity of the election, clearly we would oppose Mr. Harris’s being seated until that is resolved.”