State Watch

GOP, Dems locked in fight over North Carolina fraud probe

North Carolina Democrats and Republicans both said Thursday they want serious investigations into allegations of widespread elections fraud in one of the most closely divided U.S. House races in the country, though the two sides disputed just who should conduct an inquiry.
In a press conference in Raleigh, three Republican state senators who represent parts of North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District asked Gov. Roy Cooper (D) to create a bipartisan task force to investigate allegations that a contractor working for Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris was illegally urging people to collect voters’ absentee ballots.
“What needs to happen right now is a comprehensive and transparent and nonpartisan investigative process so that voters can have confidence that the system is operating as it should,” state Sen. Dan Bishop (R) said Thursday.
{mosads}Harris, a pastor, leads Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes, about 0.8 percentage points, a month after the Nov. 6 election. But questions have been raised about voting irregularities in rural Bladen County, where a suspicious number of absentee ballots favored Harris over McCready. 
McCready said on Thursday he was withdrawing his concession as the investigation into the fraud claims continued.
But the Republican lawmakers said they had lost confidence in the state Board of Elections, which has opened an investigation.
“Sufficient action must be taken, and there’s reason to doubt the capacity of the state board of elections to handle the problem,” Bishop said.
Meanwhile, Democrats said Republicans were trying to undermine the existing investigation by questioning the bipartisan Board of Elections.
North Carolina Democratic Party chairman Wayne Goodwin accused the GOP of trying to “derail” the ongoing probe.
“Instead of supporting a thorough investigation, Republicans are attacking a state board that they themselves created in an attempt to obfuscate and distract from what’s happening in 9th Congressional District,” Goodwin said.
“Republicans requested to keep the current board in place, but as evidence of wrongdoing are mounting day by day, they no longer want this board to investigate.”
The future of the Board of Elections itself remains uncertain.
A state court ruled the existence of the body unconstitutionally limited the power of the governor. Another court stayed that ruling, though the stay expires on December 12.
The board’s chairman, Andy Penry, resigned last week after Republicans accused him of overt partisanship.
Affidavits submitted by voters to the North Carolina State Board of Elections allege that people came to their homes and urged them to hand over their absentee ballots. Some of those people encouraged voters to leave some races blank.
Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., who worked as an independent contractor for Harris’s campaign, is at the center of the electoral fraud investigation.
Dowless, a Bladen County Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor, has worked in local political circles for years. In the 1990s, he was convicted of fraud and felony perjury.
Several witnesses told WSOC, a Charlotte TV station, that Dowless paid them to collect voters’ ballots and didn’t tell them that the practice is illegal.
The Board of Elections recently voted 7-2 to hold an evidentiary hearing by December 21. The Board has been investigating the matter since it voted not to certify the 9th District results.
Multiple news outlets reported that the board issued subpoenas to Harris’s campaign and Red Dome Group, a political consulting firm that contracted Dowless.
In Washington, National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) has been briefed on the possible legal outcomes, including the prospect of holding a new election.
Incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has said the House could refuse to seat anyone from North Carolina’s 9th district until allegations of fraud are resolved.
Meanwhile, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is aiming to become Speaker in the new Congress, said on Thursday that Democrats are closely monitoring fraud allegations, but would call for a new election only if it’s impossible to determine the winner.
Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the state Republican Party, said in an email that Republicans would be open to a new election if the Board of Elections “can show a substantial likelihood” that the absentee ballot fraud could have changed the outcome of the election.
“If they hold a public hearing and simply can’t determine one way or the other, then we would not oppose a short delay on the question of certification until they have more answers,” Woodhouse said. “We are horrified by all of this.”
“I was watching and I immediately went in and threw up,” he reportedly added of watching CNN’s coverage of the race. “I was very ill. I mean this has shaken us to the core and we are as horrified by it as anybody.”
Woodhouse has supported the investigation into alleged fraud, but had previously pushed for certification of the 9th District results.
Other investigations, including a criminal probe, are already underway. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman opened up a criminal investigation into Bladen County absentee ballots from the 2018 primary and general election as well as the 2016 election.
Freeman’s investigation has probed potential absentee ballot fraud by Dowless and two other groups, according to WSOC-TV.
Bladen County has a long history of absentee ballot irregularities. The current probe into the absentee ballots is at least the fifth investigation since 2010, according to The Charlotte Observer.
The Republican lawmakers on Thursday sought to cast doubt on results in Bladen County in prior elections, too. They said then-Sen. Kay Hagan (D) and Gov. Roy Cooper (D) had benefitted from unusually high absentee ballot turnout in the 2016 elections.
“Bladen County has had a long history of absentee ballot fraud,” said state Sen. Tommy Tucker (R). “If Republicans committed fraud, they need to be held accountable. We need to hold our own accountable.”
Woodhouse is not the only one to suggest that a new election is possible. The state Board of Elections has the authority to call a new election between McCready, Harris and the Libertarian candidate Jeff Scott.
According to state statute, at least five board members must agree to call a new election. One criteria for a new election includes “irregularities or improprieties” that “taint results” or “cast doubt” on the election’s fairness.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who sits on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, urged outgoing Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to hold an emergency hearing to investigate these irregularities.
But a GOP aide for the Oversight Committee suggested to The Hill that no hearings are planned, pointing out that those issues fall under the purview of the House Administration Committee.
—Updated at 5:41 p.m.
Tags Gerry Connolly Kay Hagan Mark Harris Nancy Pelosi Steny Hoyer Tom Emmer Trey Gowdy

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