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North Carolina judge declines to certify 9th District congressional race as fraud investigation continues

Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul C. Ridgeway indicated he was reluctant to intervene in a matter that falls under the authority of another branch of government. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP)
Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul C. Ridgeway indicated he was reluctant to intervene in a matter that falls under the authority of another branch of government. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP)
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A state judge in North Carolina has declined to certify election results in the 9th Congressional District, citing state election officials’ authority to delay certification while they continue to investigate allegations of election fraud.

In a court hearing in Raleigh on Tuesday, Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway ruled against Republican Mark Harris, who leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in unofficial results from the Nov. 6 election.

“Asking this court to step in and exert extraordinary power to declare the victor in an election that is clearly a purview of other branches of government” would be “highly unusual,” Ridgeway said. “That’s an extraordinary step.”

The State Board of Elections voted not to certify the results after accusations of election fraud surfaced in the 9th District, a rural swath of farmland and small towns that stretches from Charlotte to Fayetteville along the South Carolina border.

A lawyer for Harris argued that the state board had not presented evidence that the fraud was widespread enough to affect the outcome. Harris has said the investigation should continue but argued that he should be seated in the meantime.

“We don’t know if there have been any votes that have been affected in this election,” said Harris attorney Dudley Witt. “There’s nothing in the record, nothing before the court to show any irregularities.”

“I don’t know what this investigation shows,” Ridgeway retorted. “I don’t think anyone knows what the investigation shows.”

Lawyers for the state board and for McCready countered that enough ballots are under review to call the margin into question.

Special Deputy Attorney General Amar Majmundar, an attorney for the election board, noted that there was “an ongoing investigation.”

The investigation, Majmundar said, “may very well reveal evidence sufficient to call into question the margin that currently exists between the candidates.”

Majmundar added that the investigation could be a “springboard” for criminal prosecution.

“It’s an open question as to who rightfully won this election,” he said. “That question is now being answered slowly by the investigation.”

Ridgeway also noted that state law does not require proof that irregularities affected enough ballots to sway an election result. The law also allows an election to be tossed if irregularities sufficiently “taint” the overall outcome, he said.

Marc Elias, a Washington-based election law attorney who represents Democratic political committees and candidates, argued for McCready that there is nothing in North Carolina law that requires the investigation to be completed by a certain date.

At issue are accusations that a political operative hired by Harris to run his absentee-ballot program illegally collected mail-in ballots from voters. Also under investigation is whether the operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, or his employees discarded ballots that were not cast for Harris.

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The lawyer for the state board noted that the nine-member panel — made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and one unaffiliated voter — had voted unanimously not to certify the 9th District results.

Further complicating the investigation is the fact that the State Board of Elections was disbanded in December, following a court ruling earlier in the year that had found the board’s makeup unconstitutional. The board is expected to be reconstituted on Jan. 31 under a new state law approved in December.

Even if Ridgeway had ordered the board’s staff to certify the results, it’s not clear that Harris would have been welcomed to Congress. House Democrats have vowed not to seat Harris until the state investigation is complete, and have the power with their new majority to call for a new election.

After the hearing, the state board’s staff issued a statement promising a public hearing once a new board is seated “to give North Carolina voters a full picture of the issues that affected” the 9th District election.

Harris attorney David Freedman said no decision has been made on whether to appeal Ridgeway’s decision.