The last unsettled congressional race of 2018 may be headed for a rerun, as evidence mounts of election fraud in the Ninth District of North Carolina, which was called for Republican Mark Harris by 905 votes.
After initially charging that Democrats were trying to “steal” the election, the executive director of the state Republican Party said Thursday morning that he would support holding a new election if investigators found enough questionable votes (or missing votes) to potentially reverse the outcome.
The state’s Board of Elections voted unanimously Nov. 27 to not certify the results amid the ongoing investigation. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the favorite to be speaker in the new Congress next year, said Thursday that the House could refuse to seat Harris.
The Charlotte Observer has called for a new election and said North Carolina law would allow it.
“North Carolina General Statute 163A-1180 authorizes the Board of Elections to intervene and ‘take any other action necessary to assure that an election is determined without taint of fraud or corruption and without irregularities that may have changed the result of an election,’” wrote the Observer editorial staff. “The board should call for a new NC-09 general election.”
News stories have quoted residents of Bladen County saying their absentee ballots were collected by strangers who knocked on their doors. Absentee ballots are often cast by voters who are unable to get to the polls on Election Day, and in the Ninth District, in the southern part of the state, they mostly broke for Democrat Dan McCready. Harris carried Bladen County, the only one of the eight counties in the district where McCready didn’t win the absentee ballot count, by 1,557 votes.
“I had [the ballot] for like four days,” said Datesha Montgomery, 27, in an interview with the Washington Post. “And then she showed up and asked could she get my ballot. I still hadn’t filled it out. I stood on the porch and I filled it out. I put two names down and she told me the rest wasn’t important and she would fill it out herself.”
According to court documents filed by the state Democratic Party, the ballot-collection operation was run by a Harris campaign official, Leslie McRae Dowless Jr., a local political operative with a criminal history, having previously been convicted of fraud and perjury unrelated to politics. This is not the first time races Dowless has worked on have had curious results. In 2016, a candidate who hired Dowless won 221 of the 226 absentee ballots cast despite finishing third overall in the primary. In 2014, Dowless worked for a candidate who was narrowly elected sheriff amid allegations of absentee ballot misconduct.
In an interview with WSOC-TV, one of the ballot retrievers stated that she didn’t mail the votes in but instead handed them off to Dowless.
This is a stunning admission in the #NC09 election controversy by @wsoctv’s @JoeBrunoWSOC9 on what one of the “harvesters” did with the absentee by mail ballots she picked up: #ncpol pic.twitter.com/NtcmJOVnpE
— Michael Bitzer (@BowTiePolitics) December 3, 2018
In this year’s Republican primary, Harris defeated incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger by 2 points, in a rematch of the 2016 primary, which Pittenger won by just over a hundred votes. Harris won the county’s mail-in absentee ballots in that race by a margin of 437 to 17, an outlier from the results elsewhere in the district. According to a Washington Post report, Pittenger aides went to the North Carolina GOP to say something was amiss, but officials declined to scrutinize the results.
Dowless has denied any wrongdoing, and it’s unknown if Harris was aware of the operation. Harris is a former senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charlotte, an opponent of same-sex marriage who attracted criticism for a sermon in which he stated that women should “submit” to their husbands.
North Carolina Republicans initially urged the Board of Elections to certify Harris’s victory, but as the controversy has attracted national attention their stance has shifted. After issuing a robocall earlier this week where he said Democrats would “steal [the race] if they can,” North Carolina GOP executive director Dallas Woodhouse said Thursday morning that he supported a new election if the Board of Elections could “show that this conceivably could have flipped the race in that neighborhood.”
Rerunning an election for a federal office is extremely rare. One of most recent examples is the 1974 Senate race in New Hampshire, which after multiple recounts — the last resulting in a 2-vote margin for the Republican, Louis Wyman — was settled by a revote the following September, in which Democrat John Durkin won the seat by 27,000 votes.
Amid the questions surrounding the Ninth District, the Republican supermajority in the state legislature is passing a veto-proof voter ID law. The GOP will lose its supermajority once the new legislature is seated in January, so party leaders are pushing for a vote during the lame-duck session while they have the votes to override an expected veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
Republicans have made voter fraud a core tenet of their national message, despite repeated studies showing fraud seldom happens. The White House has contended since the 2016 election that President Trump actually won the popular voter, launching a now defunct election integrity commission that critics saw as an attempt to purge voter rolls. Earlier this year Trump reiterated the conspiracy theory that “millions and millions” of people voted illegally.
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