A congressional race in North Carolina that seemed to be settled on election night was reopened last week amid allegations of absentee ballot fraud. The Republican candidate, Mark Harris, has a 905-vote lead over the Democrat, Dan McCready. Here's what ...
Mark Harris, the Republican candidate for Congress in the Ninth District, spoke at a news conference in Matthews, N.C., last month.CreditCreditChuck Burton/Associated Press
Dec. 3, 2018
A congressional race in North Carolina that seemed to be settled on election night was reopened last week amid allegations of absentee ballot fraud. The Republican candidate, Mark Harris, has a 905-vote lead over the Democrat, Dan McCready.
Here’s what we know, and what we don’t know.
• The North Carolina State Board of Elections certified election results last week in 12 of the state’s 13 congressional districts. But it voted unanimously not to certify the results in the Ninth District — where the Republican candidate, Mark Harris, led the Democrat, Dan McCready, by less than half a percentage point — because of absentee ballot irregularities.
• Bladen County, a largely rural county in the district, recorded the state’s highest rate of absentee ballot requests: 7.5 percent of registered voters, compared with less than 3 percent in most counties. An unusually large number of them, 40 percent, were never returned. Even more, 62 percent, were unreturned in neighboring Robeson County. No other county had an unreturned rate higher than 27 percent. And according to an analysis by The News & Observer, the unreturned ballots — especially in Robeson County — were “disproportionately associated with minority voters,” who tend to vote for Democrats.
• Mr. Harris won 61 percent of submitted absentee ballots in Bladen County, even though registered Republicans accounted for only 19 percent of the ballots submitted. To do that, he would have had to win essentially every independent who voted absentee, as well as some registered Democrats. In every other county in the district — even strongly Republican ones — Mr. McCready won the absentee vote.
• In an affidavit sent to the elections board, one Bladen County resident, Datesha Montgomery, said a woman had come to her door in October and collected her absentee ballot, which is illegal in North Carolina. Ms. Montgomery said that she had voted only for sheriff and school board, and that the woman “said she would finish it herself.” Another resident, Emma Shipman, said in an affidavit that a woman had similarly collected her ballot, which was unsealed and unsigned. A third, Lucy Young, said she had received an absentee ballot even though she had not requested one.
• Mr. Harris’s campaign paid more than $400,000 to the consulting firm Red Dome during the election cycle, and even routed its payroll through the firm, rather than paying workers directly — an unusual practice, though not unheard-of. One of Red Dome’s contractors was McCrae Dowless, a longtime figure in North Carolina politics who is known for get-out-the-vote campaigns based heavily on absentee ballots. Mr. Dowless was convicted of felony perjury and insurance fraud in the early 1990s.
Dan McCready, the Democratic candidate, trails Mr. Harris by 905 votes. CreditChuck Burton/Associated Press
• North Carolina requires absentee ballot envelopes to be signed by two witnesses. Two news outlets — WSOC and Popular Information — reported independently on Monday that an unusual number of submitted ballot envelopes in Bladen County were signed by the same witnesses, which is very unusual. Three people signed more than 40 apiece. And a woman who signed 28 told WSOC that Mr. Dowless had paid her to collect finished absentee ballots and deliver them to him. She said Mr. Dowless never informed her that this was illegal.
• Top officials in both parties have taken an intense interest in the investigation. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has lawyers on the ground in the Ninth District. Republicans are pushing back hard; Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, told donors Monday night that if Democrats were able to upend Mr. Harris’s apparent victory, it could imperil President Trump’s prospects in the state in 2020.
• On Monday, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, named Joshua Malcolm as chairman of the elections board. Mr. Malcolm, a Democrat who had been vice chairman, succeeded another Democrat who resigned over the weekend after criticism of anti-Trump posts he had made on Twitter. An open seat will be filled by Robert Cordle, a Democrat who was previously a member of the panel. The board’s partisan makeup — four Democrats, four Republicans and an unaffiliated member — remains unchanged.
• The elections board will hold an evidentiary hearing by Dec. 21. The board has the authority to order a new election if it concludes that “irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.”
• Most important, we don’t know whether any fraud occurred. The fact that so many absentee ballots were requested but not returned could mean that partisan operatives threw away ballots, or it could be an innocent anomaly. The unusually high number of absentee ballots requested could indicate fraud, too, but it also might not. The evidence available so far is cause for suspicion, but nothing has been proved.
• It is not clear whether the ballots in question would change the result of the election. Contrary to Republicans’ statements, it is mathematically possible: While the 679 absentee votes Mr. Harris received in Bladen and Robeson Counties are not enough on their own, there may have been as many as 3,400 absentee ballots requested but not returned in those counties. But we don’t know which candidate those ballots would have gone to, or whether the people who requested them ever filled them out.
• The future of the elections board itself is uncertain. It was supposed to be dissolved on Monday as a result of a court ruling that the board’s composition improperly limited Governor Cooper’s power. Republican leaders asked the court for an extension while the Ninth District investigation plays out, and the judges granted one until Dec. 12. But that is still well before the Dec. 21 deadline for the evidentiary hearing, so the investigation could still be upended by the board’s dissolution.
Alan Blinder, Richard Fausset, Jonathan Martin and Rachel Shorey contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: Questions Linger in Disputed North Carolina House Race. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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