WASHINGTON - Democrats in North Carolina are threatening to block Mark Harris, the apparent winner of the state's 9th Congressional District, from taking his new seat in Washington due to an election fraud investigation.
Harris, a Republican pastor, was ahead of Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in the race, according to unofficial ballot totals. But last week, the state elections board refused to certify the results due to "claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities" involving mail-in ballots in the district.
An investigation was opened, thus making the race one of the last nationwide to be left without a winner.
Here's what we know about the allegations and what could happen next:
How did this all start?
President Donald Trump won North Carolina with nearly 50 percent of the vote in 2016 but that close margin, along with a blue wave in this year's midterm races, left the 9th Congressional District a toss-up, even though the seat has belonged to Republicans for about 60 years.
The day after the election, Harris was ahead and McCready's conceded in the race.
Harris appeared to have won, with numerous news outlets calling the race for him. But that all changed last week.
The state board of elections, a bi-partisan group with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, refused to certify the election results.
One board member cited irregularities in the results and pointed to possible fraud.
The board collected at least six sworn statements from voters who said people came to their homes and urged them to hand over their absentee ballots.
Democrats cried foul, saying that would be considered ballot-harvesting, a practice that’s illegal in the state.
What exactly are the allegations?
At the center of the controversy appears to be Leslie McCrae Dowless, who worked for Harris' campaign, and a large number of absentee ballots.
Dowless, a known political operative in the area, is accused of heading a group that would go door-to-door, encouraging people to request an absentee ballot, then go back and collect the ballots and turn them in, which would be an illegal practice. The allegations led to worries about ballot tampering.
The state's election board released records showing Dowless turned in nearly half of the requests for absentee ballots in Bladen County, according to CNN. A total of more than 1,300 were requested in that county.
An analysis by the Charlotte Observer of election data shows only about half of the absentee ballots Bladen and Robeson counties, both in the 9th district, were returned, a low percentage when compared to the rest of the state.
A large majority of those unreturned ballots belonged to African-Americans and Native American voters, the newspaper reported.
Dowless, who served prison time in 1995 for felony fraud and was convicted of felony perjury in 1992, has worked on get-out-the-vote efforts for various local and legislative candidates through the years.
It all goes back to 2016
The worries of voter fraud in the 9th Congressional District, specifically in Bladen and Robeson counties, go back to the 2016 election.
Shortly after that election, Dowless of Bladen County filed an election protest alleging a “massive scheme” by a local political group to run an “absentee ballot mill” designed to improperly turn in votes for a write-in candidate for a local position for which Dowless was running.
Dowless put his name on an elections protest, backed at the time by the campaign of then-GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, that alleged a “massive scheme” by a local political group to run an “absentee ballot mill” to improperly submit votes for a write-in candidate for a position Dowless was seeking.
But the board peppered Dowless with questions about his own absentee ballot activities. Dowless acknowledged he hired people in 2016 to urge voters to turn in absentee ballot request forms, which is legal. In sworn testimony, Dowless said he never handled or filled out the actual ballots. The board dismissed Dowless’ protest but sent all of its evidence to local and federal prosecutors.
The district attorney in Wake County revealed Monday that her office has been investigating potential “voting irregularities” in Bladen County since early this year, going back to 2016.
The investigation there now includes allegations in this year's midterm races.
Numerous investigations are ongoing, including by the state board of elections.
The board is meeting later this month, on or before Dec. 21, to hear evidence in the case. It's unclear what will be the result of that meeting.
It's possible that a new election could be held and a temporary replacement appointed to hold the seat when Congress reconvenes in January.
Democrats signaled this week that they would fight Harris taking his seat before the investigation and allegations were resolved.
Incoming Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland said Tuesday that Harris, at this point, is "not eligible for being sworn into the House."
He said that a "very substantial question" about fraud exists and added he hopes state officials “get to the bottom” of the controversy.
Hoyer was discussing whether the House Administration Committee, which has some authority over determining the propriety of elections, will get involved.
North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Wayne Goodwin said Monday it was too soon to know whether the investigation would change the vote tally but said it needs to continue.
“From what we’ve seen from these sworn affidavits, and we will learn more as the hearing is held, there appears to be election tampering, election rigging, election stealing,” he told reporters.
Contributed: Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How a North Carolina election fraud investigation is holding up a congressional seat