A North Carolina congressional election that appeared to have been narrowly won by a Republican is now in limbo as state elections officials investigate voting irregularities and questions about the handling of absentee ballots. On Friday, the North ...
Mark Harris, a Republican and Southern Baptist preacher, is leading his Democratic opponent by 905 votes.CreditCreditNell Redmond/Associated Press
Nov. 30, 2018
A North Carolina congressional election that appeared to have been narrowly won by a Republican 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 Ninth Congressional District, where Mark Harris, a Republican and Southern Baptist preacher, is leading 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-to-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 Fayetteville.
The state Republican Party had demanded Thursday that the board certify the election and threatened to sue if it did not do so.
“There are simply not enough absentee ballots in question to change the result,” Robin Hayes, the Republican Party chairman, said in a statement. “Mark Harris was elected to Congress. Mark Harris is going to Congress.”
But this week, a lawyer representing the state Democratic Party, John. R. Wallace, argued to the board that emerging information cast new doubts “as to the basic fairness of the election.”
Mr. Wallace, in a letter to the state board 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, at 7.5 percent of all registered voters.
It also seemed unusual, he argued, that Mr. Harris received nearly 96 percent of Bladen County’s absentee-by-mail votes in the Republican primary, in which Mr. Harris narrowly upset three-term Republican Congressman Robert Pittenger.
Mr. 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, and that Bladen County officials “leaked absentee ballot vote totals to the Republican Party” in violation of state law, but withheld it from Democrats, “thereby creating a decisive strategic advantage for one campaign over the other.”
Certifying the election without a hearing, he 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.”
Dr. J. Michael Bitzer, a politics and history professor at Catawba College, said it appeared odd that large numbers of requested absentee ballots in Bladen County and neighboring Robeson County were not returned – about 40 percent went unreturned in the former, and 62 percent in the latter.
“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 that she was visited by a young woman around late September who told Ms. 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,” Ms. 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 that 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.
Mr. Bitzer said that the state elections board does not certify the results it could call for a new election.
Alan Blinder contributed reporting.
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