NC Democrats call for hearing, maybe new election, in 9th District race

Posted November 29, 2018 7:47 p.m. EST
Updated November 30, 2018 11:40 a.m. EST

— The North Carolina Democratic Party produced affidavits Thursday from two people who said their unsealed absentee ballots were collected by a woman who dropped by their homes in Bladen County, leaving questions of whether and how their votes were counted in the November elections.

One woman said the person who collected her incomplete ballot said she would "finish it herself," which would be illegal.

The party said the state's 9th Congressional District contest should remain incomplete while the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement holds formal, public hearings into voting shenanigans that apparently took place in Bladen County. The board surprised North Carolina politicos Tuesday when it declined to certify the results of that election, and it comes back into session Friday morning for a closed-door session that will undoubtedly focus on what comes next.

Since the board's decision, which was unanimous among the body's bipartisan membership, it has become clear state investigators are asking questions about Bladen County absentee ballots.

There aren't enough of those to close the 905-vote margin Republican Mark Harris has over Democrat Dan McCready, who conceded this race the day after the election. But the Democratic Party said Thursday there's enough evidence of chicanery to cast doubt on "the basic fairness of the election."

The state's three Democratic members of Congress also called on the board to hold a public evidentiary hearing and, if "clear evidence of voter fraud" emerges, to "consider all available remedies, up to and including the conduct of a new election."

North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said in a statement that Democrats are "throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at the wall to try and steal an election." He promised immediate legal action if the board doesn't certify Harris' win on Friday.

"There are simply not enough absentee ballots in question to change the result," Hayes said. "Mark Harris was elected to Congress."

The Democratic Party's letter was penned by party attorney John Wallace, and it raises a number of questions, but the most serious may be the suggestion of ballot "harvesting." Datesha Montgomery signed an affidavit in late October saying a woman came to her home earlier that month to ask for her absentee ballot, which Montgomery gave, even though she'd voted in only two races.

"She stated the others were not important," Montgomery said under oath. "I gave her the ballot, and she said she would finish it herself. I signed the ballot, and she left. It was not sealed up at any time."

In a second affidavit, Emma L. Shipman, also of Bladen County, swore that a woman she later picked out of a photo lineup came to her house saying "she was assigned to this district to collect absentee ballots." Shipman said she filled out her ballot while the woman waited outside.

"She took the ballot and put it in an envelope and never sealed it or asked me to sign it," Shipman said.

After the 2016 elections, the state board heard but ultimately dismissed charges that questioned hundreds of absentee ballots in Bladen County. The board voted to refer those concerns to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Board member Joshua Malcolm, who was also on the board in 2016, complained Tuesday that unnamed prosecutors failed to follow up on "unfortunate activities" in his part of the state and that he couldn't turn a blind eye. He made the successful motion to delay certifying results in the 9th District.

Congressman Robert Pittenger, who lost the 9th District Republican primary to Harris in May, told Spectrum News on Thursday that he was "fully aware" of voting irregularities in his district.

"There's some pretty unsavory people out, particularly in Bladen County, and I didn't have anything to do with them," Pittenger said in the interview. "Let me just leave it at that."

In its letter, Wallace noted that Bladen County had, by far, the highest percentage of absentee ballot requests in the state during the 2018 election cycle. He also said Harris won nearly 96 percent of the county's mail-in absentee vote in the primary.

There were 437 absentee-by-mail votes for Harris in Bladen County in the primary, compared to Pittenger's 17. The next-highest county absentee-by-mail tally in that race came from much larger Mecklenburg County, where Harris got 100 mailed votes and Pittenger received 96.

There are also concerns about the unusually high number of absentee ballots requested in Bladen and neighboring Robeson County that were never returned to the local election boards. Former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, a Republican with a reputation for crossing party lines, tweeted late Thursday that the numbers defy innocent explanation.

"Almost 1600 absentee ballots requested in Bladen and Robeson County and NEVER returned????" Orr wrote. "Really? It's clear that fraud in the 9th District Congressional race happened but scope and impact yet to be determined. No certification until a full hearing!"

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement meets at 10 a.m. Friday via conference call. The call in number is (415) 655-0052 and the code to listen in is 767-369-311, but much of the time the line will likely be silent as the board meets in closed session.

Wallace wrote Thursday that, "after pulling the fire alarm on Tuesday, the State Board cannot in good conscience certify the election three days later, when so much smoke continues to hang over this election."