North Carolina officials voted Friday to continue investigating fraud in the 9th Congressional District election, potentially delaying certification of the results for weeks and leaving open the possibility that a new election could be called.
The decision cast new uncertainty on the race between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready, who are separated by only 905 votes out of 283,317 ballots cast, according to unofficial returns. The Associated Press on Friday announced it was revoking its projection that Harris won the southeastern North Carolina seat. The inquiry further roiled a state already divided over issues of voting rights, voter suppression and fraud.
Republicans spent the week in Raleigh drafting legislation to implement a new voter-approved requirement to present identification at the polls — an effort that the GOP has said is necessary to combat voter fraud. But they were mostly mum as evidence mounted that a different kind of election fraud may have taken place 100 miles south, other than to demand that the state board quickly certify Harris’s narrow lead.
“It’s a big juxtaposition to focus on a non-problem and ignore a huge problem,” said Gerry Cohen, a former counsel to the state legislature and an expert on election law. He noted that voter ID laws can’t prevent the kind of absentee ballot fraud alleged in the 9th District.
In a statement Friday, Harris accused the election board of a lack of transparency and called for the results to be immediately certified.
“Make no mistake, I support any efforts to investigate allegations of irregularities and/or voter fraud, as long as it is fair and focuses on all political parties,” Harris said. “But to date, there is absolutely no public evidence that there are enough ballots in question to affect the outcome of this race. Accordingly, the Board should act immediately to certify the race while continuing to conduct their investigation. Anything else is a disservice to the people of the Ninth District.”
The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has collected at least six sworn statements from voters in rural Bladen County, 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.
Among the allegations is that an individual who worked for the Harris campaign coordinated an effort to collect and fill in, or discard, the ballots of Democratic voters who might have otherwise voted for McCready. Several of the affidavits come from elderly African American voters. It is illegal to take someone else’s ballot, whether to turn it in or discard it.
Officials are also examining unusually high numbers of absentee ballots cast in some precincts in the 9th District — and unusually high numbers of ballots requested but never returned. Harris’s narrow victory over incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) in the Republican primary is also under scrutiny, with new attention on the incredibly high proportion of absentee ballots — 96 percent — that Harris won in Bladen County.
The nine-person state board, which includes four Democrats, four Republicans and one unaffiliated member, voted 7 to 2 in favor of holding a hearing by Dec. 21 “to assure that the election is determined without taint of fraud or corruption and without irregularities that may have changed the result.”
In the motion, the board cited “claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities related to absentee mail ballots.” Two of the board’s Republicans voted no.
The 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 election.
The affidavits were submitted to the board and distributed to the media by the state Democratic Party. In one of the sworn statements, Bladen County voter Datesha Montgomery attested that a young woman came to her door Oct. 12 and asked for her ballot. Montgomery said she made her selections in two races and turned the form over to the woman.
“She said she would finish it herself,” Montgomery said. “I signed the ballot and she left. It was not sealed up at any time.”
Emma Shipman, 87, signed another 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.
Republicans quickly accused the state board of having a partisan motivation in holding a hearing — even though two of the five votes in favor were cast by Republican members of the board.
“Remember no public evidence in #CD9 shows vote tampering and mathematically this could not have changed the race,” Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state GOP, said in a tweet.
The state Democratic Party, meanwhile, urged the board to continue the investigation.
“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,” John R. Wallace, an attorney for the state Democrats, wrote in a letter to the state board that accompanied the affidavits. “Nothing less than the people’s faith in our democracy is at stake.”
The board’s decision Friday delays certification not only of the Harris-McCready race but also a District Court race in Robeson County, which also has reported concerns about possible manipulation of absentee ballots.
Johnson Britt, the district attorney in Robeson County, said the state board has not referred any allegations of fraud to his office, and no investigation is underway. The district attorney in Bladen County, Jon David, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At the conclusion of the election board meeting, which was conducted via telephone, Chairman Andy Penry thanked other members of the board for their service. After a brief pause, he added: “Okay, phew. Here we go.”
Adding to the uncertainty is a political battle over control of the 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.
Alice Crites contributed to this report. Ross reported from Raleigh, N.C.