The Republican Party in North Carolina has been slow to accept the investigation into potential absentee ballot fraud. (Erika P. Rodriguez/For The Washington Post) (ERIKA P. RODRIGUEZ/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Dallas Woodhouse, executive chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, spoke with great concern about the issue of election fraud.

It was 2016, and he was talking to a reporter from “This American Life,” the weekly public radio show, about questions being raised regarding signatures on some absentee ballots in Bladen County on the state’s southern border.

A group funded by Democrats in the state had been working on get-out-the-vote efforts in the area, and McCrae Dowless, a Republican soil and water supervisor with a checkered past, had filed a complaint, despite winning reelection.

Attention on the supposed absentee-ballot issues in the county was high; the campaign of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, hammered on it during a tense month-long stretch when he declined to concede the race to the Democrat who had garnered more votes than he did.

Woodhouse didn’t mince words about the need to investigate and punish the supposed fraud.

“Should the election board find that these are absentee ballot mills, with the purpose of fraudulent voting, those people should go to jail,” he told the radio show. “They should spend the first term of the Trump administration behind bars.”

He later added: “If somebody is going out there and helping hundreds of people, they are harvesting ballots.”

Fast-forward two years . . .

. . . to an election-related scandal that shares similar contours, emerging from where else but Bladen County and connected to — who else? — McCrae Dowless. The state election board declined last week to certify a close congressional race in the area that Dowless worked on, and news reports with evidence and witnesses have been helping illuminate a potentially illegal ballot-harvesting operation aimed at voters in at least one county. Investigators are looking into what happened with absentee ballots that were gathered from the county and why it seems as if so many were never turned in.

Yet for the past week, Woodhouse has repeatedly questioned and downplayed the inquiry — at one point going so far as to complain, without evidence, that it was part of a Democratic conspiracy to steal the election — and regularly threatening legal action over the official inquiry into the integrity of the race.

One of the differences this time around? Mark Harris, the candidate whose slim lead in the race is now in jeopardy, is a Republican.

“We think they have abused their discretion and violated the statute,” Woodhouse said of the bipartisan election board on Nov. 27, the day it declined to certify Harris as the victor. “This will inevitably end up in court. The fact of the matter is Mark Harris won the race. He got more votes.”

On Twitter, he pointed to a culprit: “The democrats decided not to certify the results,” he wrote, “and everyone know[s] it.”

Woodhouse was also part of a group of Republicans that pressured the election board’s chairman, Andy Penry, a Democrat, to resign, because of partisan statements he had made in the past on Twitter. But Woodhouse also framed the push for the chairman’s ouster because of the way the inquiry into the 9th Congressional District race was unfolding.

“@NCGOP is in total agreement Penry should go, in part because of the horrific lack of transparency in dealing with #CD 9,” he wrote on Twitter.

On Monday, Woodhouse made perhaps his most inflammatory remarks about the fraud probe yet, even as evidence and word of investigations had began to mount. Speaking to potential donors to fundraise off the investigation, Woodhouse laced his remarks with the whiff of conspiracy theories and baseless accusations of theft and cheating on the part of the Democrats.

“They are throwing everything against the wall, and it is running up expenses for us by the minute,” Woodhouse said, according to a transcript published by Charlotte-based television reporter Joe Bruno. “But you know they’ll steal it if they can. And the frustrating thing to Chairman Hayes, and, I know, you as well: This is just a test to see if they can steal North Carolina from Donald Trump in 2020.”

Woodhouse has also been at the center of the state party’s efforts to spread the idea that there weren’t enough contested ballots in question to change the result of the race, an assertion disputed by fact-checkers and statistical experts such as Nate Silver.

The GOP in North Carolina

Woodhouse’s apparent antagonism toward the inquiry into the absentee-ballot issues also stood in stark contrast with the actions and statements of the Republican Party and its lawmakers in North Carolina. For years, the state has been at the vanguard of the party’s nationwide efforts to pass restrictive voting legislation such as voter ID laws in the name of supposed election integrity, though studies have failed to show any evidence of large-scale fraud by voters in the United States.

In the twilight of McCrory’s losing campaign in 2016, Republicans filed complaints in more than half the state’s 100 counties, alleging that ballots were cast by dead people, felons and people who voted in other states. And while most of the complaints were dismissed, they delayed vote counts, according to the News & Observer.

Nationally, the specter of voter fraud has also become a fixation for Republicans. But many of the prominent party officials who have complained about supposed voting issues, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, have remained silent about the investigation in North Carolina. President Trump, who has made unsupported conspiracy theories and unfounded claims about fraudulent votes a hallmark of his presidency, also has said nothing about the issue in the state.

Gerry Cohen, an election-law expert and former legislative staff attorney in North Carolina, said he has noticed the about-face from Republicans in the state.

“They seem extremely defensive about the accusations and are basically throwing shade on the statute about when a new election can be called,” he said. “I think they were being disingenuous.”

Cohen noted that information about the probe and allegations has grown in the week since the board declined to certify the results of the race on Nov. 27.

But by Nov. 29, affidavits were made public from some voters, several of whom were elderly African Americans, who said people had come to their doors and urged them to hand over their mail-in ballots.

Election experts like Catawba University political scientist J. Michael Bitzer had begun crunching data, finding curious discrepancies in the data about absentee ballots for Bladen and another nearby county. And the evidence continued to grow in both local reports, such as one in which a woman admitted on camera that she was paid to help Dowless (who was working for Harris’s campaign) pick up mail-in ballots, and national ones from reporters such as The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner and Kirk Ross.

Woodhouse, redux

Woodhouse has downplayed the allegations as “the mishandling of ballots” — a less-significant infraction than election-related fraud and a far cry from the “absentee ballot mills” accusation and threats of jail he made in 2016.

In an interview with The Post on Wednesday, Woodhouse confirmed that Bruno’s transcript of his call with donors was correct.

“This thing is unfolding fast enough on us that we probably would phrase some things differently as things are coming out,” he said.

When asked why his statements in 2016 and advocacy on issues related to the integrity of elections seemed to contrast so sharply to his stance on the current issues in North Carolina, he said his views had always been the same.

“Our position is that any illegal activity dealing with absentee ballots is unacceptable, should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said. “And if people are doing something that for investigators and criminal procedure law warrant [action] . . . we want people fully punished for this no matter who they are.”

He blamed the board’s lack of transparency for his statements earlier.

“We tried to only comment on what we know at the time, and more information is coming out by the minute,” he said. “This is a fast-moving story. And we are human and imperfect.”

On Tuesday, the district attorney for Bladen County disclosed that local authorities have been investigating potential election fraud in the area since 2016 and said the matter was discussed with the U.S. attorney in the area.

“We are as horrified by this as anyone else,” Woodhouse said. “The North Carolina Republican Party had nothing to do — did not fund, did not coordinate, did not participate, did not have knowledge of any absentee ballot issues that are now in question, whether they’re in Bladen County or Robeson or wherever.”

His position continued to shift. He told reporters Friday that he was potentially open to holding a new election provided the allegations of fraud continued to bear out.

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