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Certification in limbo in N.C. House race as fraud investigation continues

Mark Harris speaks to the media in Matthew, N.C., the day after the 9th Congressional District election. (Chuck Burton/AP)

Mounting evidence of fraud in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District could indefinitely delay the certification of a winner, as state election officials investigate whether hundreds of absentee ballots were illegally cast or destroyed.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has no plans to certify Republican Mark Harris’s 905-vote victory over Democrat Dan McCready, according to an agenda of a board meeting scheduled for Friday morning.

The board is collecting sworn statements from voters in rural Bladen and Robeson counties, near the South Carolina border, who described people coming to their doors and urging them to hand over their absentee ballots, sometimes without filling them out. Others described receiving absentee ballots by mail that they had not requested. It is illegal to take someone else’s ballot and turn it in.

Investigators are also scrutinizing unusually high numbers of absentee ballots cast in Bladen County, in both the general election and the May 8 primary, in which Harris defeated incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger (R) by 828 votes. In the primary, Harris won 96 percent of all absentee ballots in Bladen, a far higher percentage than his win in the county overall — a statistic that this week is prompting fresh accusations of fraud.

Another irregularity in both the primary and general elections is the high number of absentee ballots in some precincts that were requested but not turned in.

In one sworn statement, Bladen County voter Datesha Montgomery attested that, on Oct. 12, a young woman came to her door and asked for her ballot, stating that she was collecting people’s ballots in the area.

“I filled out two names on the ballot, Hakeem Brown for Sheriff and Vince Rozier for board of education,” Montgomery wrote in the affidavit. “She stated the others were not important. 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.”

President Trump spoke at a fundraiser for a pair of GOP candidates, Rep. Ted Budd and Mark Harris, in Charlotte on Aug. 31. (Video: The Washington Post)

The election board’s spokesman, Pat Gannon, declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. A spokesman for Harris, Andy Yates, did not respond to telephone and email inquiries.

McCready said in a statement released Thursday night on Twitter that he supported the elections board’s actions.

“We must do everything we can to protect the integrity of our ballots and sanctity of our elections because our democracy depends on it,” he said, calling for a “full public evidentiary hearing.”

Pittenger declined a request for comment, although in an interview with Spectrum News published early Thursday, he said of the allegations of fraud in his district: “It’s been out there. We were fully aware of it. There are some particularly unsavory people, particularly out in Bladen County, and I didn’t have anything to do with them.”

The state elections board has investigative and subpoena powers to pursue the allegations. If it chooses, it may hold off certifying the election results until it has completed its investigation. The board also has the power to refer the matter for criminal investigation to state and federal prosecutors; it did so in 2016 after similar reports of irregularities in Bladen County. The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on any possible investigation.

Harris has asked the board to expedite the investigation. The head of the state GOP, Dallas Woodhouse, has gone further, accusing the board of a partisan campaign. The nine-member board, with four Democrats, four Republicans and one unaffiliated voter, agreed unanimously to delay certification.

State Democrats, meanwhile, demanded a full investigation by the state board and prosecutors.

“There is nothing Democratic or Republican in demanding light be shone on any illegal activity that may have gone on for years in Bladen County,” wrote John R. Wallace, an attorney for the state Democrats, who have been collecting affidavits from voters who say they witnessed fraudulent activities. “Nothing less than the people’s faith in our democracy is at stake.”

Adding to the uncertainty is a political battle over control of the state board itself. State judges have thrown out two laws enacted by the GOP-controlled General Assembly intended to wrest control of the board from Gov. Roy Cooper (D); as a result, the current board is scheduled to dissolve early next week. That throws into doubt not only the fate of the fraud investigation in the 9th District, but the timing of certification of the Harris-McCready results.

If the investigation does continue next week, precinct-by-precinct scrutiny of returns is likely — especially for absentee ballots. The state board has the power to order a new election if it determines the irregularities could have made a difference in the outcome or were widespread enough to generally taint the outcome.

Whether the number of absentee ballots that were possibly illegally collected — or destroyed — exceeds Harris’s 905-vote margin will be a crucial piece of the investigation.

Gerry Cohen, an election law expert who used to work for the state legislature, said he found one precinct in Bladen County in which the results seemed odd. In that precinct, called Bladenboro 2, 159 people voted by mail — 18 Democrats, 32 Republicans and 109 unaffiliated. Only four were African American.

In that same precinct, 156 requested absentee ballots but never returned them, Cohen said.

“There are patterns that are at odds with behavior of North Carolina voters,” Cohen said. “It’s a whole series of suspicious events.”

On Wednesday, local election officials confirmed that a state investigator had seized completed absentee ballot request forms and absentee container envelopes on Nov. 7, the day after the election.

Steve Stone, chairman of the Robeson County Board of Elections, said state investigators have requested information the county board kept on an unusual number of absentee ballot requests. Stone said county elections officials began keeping logs of who dropped off large numbers of registration forms and absentee ballot requests, and they later reported their concerns to the state board in August.

Stone said county residents had reported that people were going door-to-door, telling voters that their registrations had been dropped and they needed to re-register. They were also asked to sign an absentee ballot request form, Stone said.

At least five affidavits submitted to the state board described various instances of fraud, including multiple occasions when people came to voters’ doors to collect ballots and offered to fill them out for them.

Emma Shipman, 87, submitted an affidavit saying she gave a woman a filled-out absentee ballot. She said in an interview that the woman had come to her neighborhood, a predominantly African American cluster of homes in the town of Tar Heel.

“She said she was there to get older people to vote,” Shipman said. “She was kind of pushing me to do it.”

When Shipman went to vote during the state’s early voting period, she was told there was a problem, though she was later able to cast a new ballot.

She said she still isn’t sure if her vote counted, and the more she thought about it, the more it vexed her. “I thought about that woman every day,” she said. “What was she doing?”

Ross reported from Tar Heel, N.C.