Voters cast their ballots at the Bremen Area Historical Society polling station in Bremen, Ohio, U.S. (Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg)

North Carolina Board Orders New Election in Tainted House Race

(Bloomberg) -- The North Carolina elections board ordered a new vote in a U.S House district because of evidence that the results in November were tainted by fraud.

The ruling came on the fourth day of the board’s hearing to investigate allegations of absentee voter fraud orchestrated by a political operative on GOP candidate Mark Harris’s payroll during last year’s midterm election. Harris held a 905-vote lead over Democrat Dan McCready in the unofficial tally that a previous election board declined to certify.

Harris on Thursday abruptly reversed his earlier request that the November result be certified, instead urging a new election. At the end of his testimony, Harris said medical issues he experienced last month affected his recollection of events.

“It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the 9th district seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted,” Harris told the board. "Through the testimony I’ve listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called.”

The election board, which voted unanimously for a new election, includes three Democrats and two Republicans that Democratic Governor Roy Cooper appointed last month after state judges declined to extend the previous board’s mandate.

Swing-State District

Redoing the vote gives Democrats another shot at a swing-state district that includes wealthy suburbs of Charlotte and part of rural eastern North Carolina, fitting the profile of other districts Republicans lost last year amid voter frustration with President Donald Trump.

Republican stumbles during the hearing, including Harris’s denial that he was aware that an absentee ballot strategy used on his behalf was illegal, could complicate the GOP pitch to voters in a new election. The 9th District is the only congressional race still unsettled from the November midterm election.

The board’s decision followed a morning of tense testimony from Harris, the day after his son, John Harris, told the election board that he had warned his father about potential problems with questionable tactics involving absentee ballots used by Leslie McCrae Dowless, the political operative working for the Harris campaign.

Those warnings were a turning point in the hearing, shedding light on whether the candidate knew -- or should have known -- what campaign workers he employed were doing.

‘Red Flags’

The younger Harris said he initially noticed irregular absentee ballot returns in Bladen County when his father ran in the GOP primary in 2016, but he didn’t know who was responsible for results that didn’t match the district’s demographics. He said when his father first met with Dowless before the 2018 primary, he warned him that there should be oversight of the operative’s strategy to make sure it stayed within the bounds of the law.

"I raised red flags at the time the decision was made to hire Mr. Dowless," John Harris said, earlier describing him as a “shady character.”

Mark Harris said Thursday he viewed the communications with his son as “family conversation,” and he thought his son was “overreacting” to the risk of hiring Dowless. Harris said he didn’t consider his son’s warnings as sign of a “real serious potential problem.”

The electoral fraud described by witnesses in this week’s hearing was a political operation that would not have been prevented by the state’s voter ID laws that a federal judge struck down in 2016 for discriminating against African-Americans.

North Carolina politics have been consumed by bitter partisanship in recent years after Republicans consolidated state power and alienated some voters by overreaching on social and political issues.

Lost Super-Majorities

One partisan episode will change the way the new election is conducted: Republicans in November lost their super-majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. In the final weeks of a lame duck term, they passed an election law that would require a new primary to be held in the case of a general election redo.

Cooper vetoed the bill, and Republicans overturned his veto Dec. 27, just days before the end of their veto-proof majority. This means Republicans have a chance to field someone other than Harris, who didn’t say whether he intends to run again.

After the hearing, Robin Hayes, head of the North Carolina Republican Party, described the investigation as “a tremendously difficult situation for all involved,” and said the party respects the call for a new election.

“We will continue to work with legislators and investigators on how we can improve the electoral system so that these kinds of situations can be avoided in the future,” Hayes said in a statement. “The people of North Carolina deserve nothing less than the full confidence and trust in the electoral system.”

Former Representative Robert Pittenger, a three-term Republican who lost the 2018 primary to Harris, says he has no interest in participating in a new primary. Dowless was part of Harris’s team for the primary and the general election.

North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin welcomed the call for a new election.

“This saga could only have ended in a new election,” Goodwin said in a statement. “We look forward to repairing the harm dealt by Republicans and giving the people of the Ninth district the representative they deserve.”

McCready, the Democratic candidate, is a Marine Corps veteran who started a solar energy company and ran on a moderate platform of job training, affordable health care and environmental protections.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.