National News

North Carolina Election That Looked to Be Republican Victory Now in Limbo

Posted November 30, 2018 6:31 p.m. EST
Updated November 30, 2018 6:36 p.m. EST

A North Carolina congressional election that a Republican appeared to have narrowly won is now in limbo as state elections officials investigate voting irregularities and questions about the handling of absentee ballots.

On Friday, the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement declined to certify the election results from the state’s 9th Congressional District, where Mark Harris, a Republican and Southern Baptist preacher, led his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, by 905 votes.

The dispute added one more race to the list of those decided long after Election Day, and one more election-related dispute — potentially a very complicated one — in a state rife with them.

After a lengthy closed session, the bipartisan state board announced that it had instead decided, on a 7-2 vote, to hold an evidentiary hearing on or before Dec. 21 to explore “claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities” related to absentee ballots in some rural swaths of the district, which wraps around the southern end of the state from Charlotte to east of Fayetteville.

The Associated Press said Friday hat it had retracted its call that Harris had won. The AP said it was “treating the board’s action as if the race has proceeded to a recount.”

It is unclear how many ballots and voters were affected by any potential fraud, but the state board may order a new election if it finds that “irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.”

However, the board, in its nine-member form, is to be dissolved on Monday night, a consequence of a long-running dispute over power in North Carolina, and it was not clear Friday what a replacement would look like.

The North Carolina Republican Party had demanded this week that the board certify the congressional election and threatened to sue if it did not do so. The executive director of the state party, Dallas Woodhouse, declined to discuss the organization’s plans in detail on Friday, but he argued that it was a “mathematical impossibility” for the outcome to be changed.

He added: “Mark Harris won that election. Mark Harris got more legitimate votes. Mark Harris will be the congressman, and any effort not to do that would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.”

But this week, a lawyer representing the state Democratic Party, John R. Wallace, argued to the regulatory board that emerging information cast new doubts “as to the basic fairness of the election.”

Wallace, in a letter to the state board on Thursday, raised the possibility that “serious irregularities and improprieties may have occurred.” He singled out rural Bladen County, which, he wrote, had the highest percentage of absentee ballot requests of any county in the state, 7.5 percent of all registered voters.

It also seemed unusual, he argued, that Harris received nearly 96 percent of Bladen County’s absentee-by-mail votes in the Republican primary, in which Harris narrowly upset Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Republican who was first elected in 2012.

Wallace also wrote that Democratic officials were told that a person being investigated by the state was an employee of a consulting firm that worked for the Harris campaign. A lawyer for Harris’ campaign did not return calls seeking comment.

Certifying the election without a hearing, Wallace argued, “would be a grave injustice, and a permanent stain on this board and a stain on North Carolina’s national reputation for free and fair elections.”

J. Michael Bitzer, a politics and history professor at Catawba College, near Charlotte, said it appeared odd that large numbers of requested absentee ballots in Bladen County and neighboring Robeson County were not returned: about 40 percent in Bladen, and 62 percent in Robeson.

“That says, ‘Well, people were either willing to request it but not carry through, or they requested it and something happened on the return — and we just don’t know which is which,” he said.

Included with the letter were several affidavits from Bladen County residents. One of them, Datesha Montgomery, said she was visited by a young woman around late September who told Montgomery that she was collecting ballots. “I filled out two names of the ballot, Hakeem Brown for sheriff and Vice Rozier for board of election,” Montgomery wrote. “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 the time.”

A second woman, Emma L. Shipman, said a young woman came to her house and said she was “assigned to this district to collect absentee ballots.”

Wayne Goodwin, the chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, welcomed the board’s decision to hold a hearing in December.

“North Carolina voters deserve to know the truth, and their voices deserve to be heard,” he said.

Even Pittenger, the outgoing Republican in the district, said in an interview this week that charges of voting irregularities in the district had been “out there” and that he had been “fully aware” of the discussions.

“There’s some pretty unsavory people, particularly in Bladen County, and I didn’t have anything to do with them,” Pittenger told Spectrum News North Carolina. “Let me just leave it at that.”

Asked, before the board’s decision on Friday, how he expected the race to end, Pittenger replied, “I don’t have a clue. I have my feelings about what’s right and wrong, but let’s leave that to those who are digging into it.”