As the 116th U.S. Congress was sworn into office last Thursday, a lone North Carolina seat in the House of Representatives remained vacant, and its future uncertain.
The 9th N.C. Congressional District is clouded in fraud allegations against the Republican victor, Mark Harris, leading the N.C. State Board of Elections to refuse certifying the election as it continues to investigate irregularities. Harris defeated Democratic opponent Dan McCready by 905 votes in November.
In affidavits submitted to the NCSBE, residents of Bladen County described people who posed as election officials coming to collect their unsealed absentee ballots.
Emma Shipman, a District 9 and Bladen County resident, signed an affidavit swearing she gave her unsigned and unsealed absentee ballot to a woman she assumed was a state official.
“She took the ballot and put it in an envelope and never sealed it or asked me to sign it,” Shipman wrote in the affidavit. “Then she left. Because of the way she presented herself, I thought she was legitimate.”
Other affidavits submitted to the NCSBE focus on Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., an independent contractor hired by Republican candidate Mark Harris. They state that Dowless said in conversation that he had more than 800 absentee ballots in his possession, and that he was "throwing ballots in the trash." One person said they overheard someone outside a polling site say Dowless was promised $40,000 from Harris if he won the congressional seat.
The rate of unreturned ballots was 2.5 times higher in Bladen County than the rest of the district.
An affidavit by Agnes Willis, a poll worker, states an election official improperly and illegally viewed early vote totals in Bladen County. A separate affidavit links Dowless to having close relationships with two members of the Bladen County Board of Elections.
“Having that kind of inside information early on would certainly help them to craft a strategy for election day,” said Michael Bitzer, a history and politics professor at Catawba College.
Patrick Gannon, a spokesperson for the NCSBOE, said it is still investigating who viewed the election totals, as well as when they were accessed.
Dowless was also involved in a 2016 NCSBOE investigation into the mishandling of absentee ballots, in which Dowless paid others to help fill out and collect Bladen County absentee ballots. The case was referred to a U.S. Attorney, but charges were never pressed.
“When they referred the case, it was the time period when the Trump administration had wanted to start clean with new U.S. Attorneys, and maybe it got lost in that transition period,” Bitzer said.
Bitzer said absentee voting in Bladen County was highly irregular for this election. Absentee-by-mail requests comprised 7.3 percent of votes, the highest percentage in the state. Though only 19 percent of absentee ballots in Bladen County were cast by registered Republicans, 61 percent of absentee ballots were cast for Republican candidate Mark Harris.
Democrat Dan McCready won the absentee-by-mail vote in all other counties by an average of 23 points, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Under N.C. law, if the state election board investigation concludes “irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness,” a new election must be called.
The nine member NCSBE was dissolved in December by an unrelated court mandate, though its investigation into the 9th District election fraud will continue under the the board's staff until a new five-member board is appointed after Jan. 31, according to Gannon. Gov. Roy Cooper attempted to create a temporary Board of Elections for January, but Republicans in the General Assembly refused to make appointments.
“(Republicans) will not accept appointments to an unconstitutional, illegal sham Roy Cooper creation,” N.C. GOP Chairperson Robin Hayes said in a statement.
Due to the absence of an active Board of Elections, Mark Harris is suing a state court in an effort to have his race certified. However, even if his suit is successful, the U.S. Committee on House Administration, which is currently controlled by Democrats, has the authority to call for a new election.
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