Remember that North Carolina congressional race that never got called last November and then sank into a quagmire of fraud allegations against the Republican campaign that looked initially like a winner? While it’s been out of the national news, it’s been the source of continued angst in the Tar Heel State, beginning with a refusal by the state election board to certify Mark Harris’s apparent win last November.
The underlying issue was extensive evidence of absentee ballot tampering by a local fixer who was working for Harris’s campaign:
The board is looking into 14,056 absentee ballots requested for voters across the 9th District, according to Josh Lawson, the board’s general counsel. Of these, 10,651 were returned, and 3,405 were not. The board has concerns about whether irregularities and fraudulent activities could have affected ballots in both categories — ballots illegally completed or tampered with and counted, or ballots illegally discarded …
Harris racked up a winning margin of 1,557 votes in Bladen County, and 61 percent of the absentee ballots were cast for him even though just 19 percent of those ballots were cast by registered Republicans.
The fixer in question, who was linked to canvassers reportedly collecting absentee ballots illegally, was Bladen County water and soil commissioner Leslie McCrae Dowless. The dude had a checkered past, as the Raleigh News and Observer reported:
A man who worked as an “independent contractor” for Republican Mark Harris’ campaign in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District is a convicted felon who faced jail time for fraud and perjury, according to court records.
Over the last two decades, he has been paid by at least nine candidates, all for get-out-the-vote work, according to state records.
Leslie McCrae Dowless was convicted of felony fraud in 1992 in Iredell County, according to court records. Dowless and his wife were accused of taking out an insurance policy on a dead man and collecting nearly $165,000 from his death, according to a 1991 Fayetteville Observer article. He served more than six months of a two-year prison sentence, according to court records.
Just the man you want running a county for your campaign.
In any event, the state investigation that was turning up the dirt on Dowless ran into its own twilight zone when a court zapped the election board it was working for, in unrelated litigation. The board was shut down at year’s end, and after the Republican legislature passed a new board authorization over Democratic governor Roy Cooper’s veto, the state eventually got a new five-member board, when Cooper appointed three Democrats and two Republicans to it on January 31. The new board has now been briefed in investigators’ findings, and will hold a public hearing on them on February 18, as Kirk Ross reports:
The new chairman of the state Board of Elections said he expects to reach a turning point on the disputed 9th Congressional District election, with a vote to either certify the results or hold a new election after a Feb. 18 evidentiary hearing.
In its first in-person meeting in Raleigh, the newly appointed board met in closed session for nearly four hours to learn from state investigators what will be presented at that Feb. 18 hearing.
While no one knows for sure what will happen at and after the hearing, there definitely seems to be enough evidence of wrongdoing by Harris’s authorized representatives to make his certification unlikely, particularly by a majority-Democratic board. On the other hand, the board’s rules require four of its five members to vote for any new election. That would mean at least one Republican voting for that dramatic remedy.
Hanging over the entire proceeding is the fact that the U.S. House is the ultimate arbiter of the qualifications of its members. It can effectively order a new election by declaring the seat vacated. With Democrats controlling both the House and the North Carolina governorship (which would have to call the new election), that seems like a very plausible course of events. The timing of and conditions for a new election are another matter. Under the original state law a new election would have been a “do-over”–a new general election contest between Harris and McCready. But the North Carolina legislature intervened to require a primary, too, as the New York Times reported:
The bill, backed by substantial majorities among both parties, could eventually place Republicans in the awkward position of choosing whether to stick with Mr. Harris, who appeared to have narrowly won a primary and general election — both now buffeted by allegations of irregularities including tainted absentee ballots — or replace him on the ballot.
If the U.S. House deems the seat “vacated,” it will likely defer to state law and a primary will ensue, though there’s been some talk of a congressionally ordered “do-over” of the general election as well.
After a long period of inaction in this saga, things may soon be popping.
Note: this article has been updated and revised to reflect better information on the nature of a new election, if it occurs.