Amid fraud probe, an election redo might require new primary

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — With ballot fraud allegations hanging over a disputed North Carolina U.S. House race, state lawmakers have agreed to change the way such “do-over” congressional elections are handled.

The state House and Senate voted Wednesday to require new primary elections, in addition to a new general election, if the state elections board decides a redo is needed because ballot irregularities or other problems in a congressional contest cast the true outcome into doubt.

The primary election requirement — contained in a measure reworking who oversees the enforcement of state elections and ethics laws and heading to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk — would apply to the current 9th Congressional District race.

The current nine-member state elections and ethics board is investigating absentee ballot problems in the district, where unofficial results show Republican Mark Harris leading Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. An evidentiary hearing is scheduled on or before Dec. 21, after which the board could already call for a new 9th District general election, but not necessarily a primary race.

Both primary and general elections are required when a North Carolina U.S. House seat is officially declared vacant, such as when Rep. Mel Watt stepped down in 2014.

State Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican who helped shepherd the bill through the legislature, told colleagues Wednesday the directive would align with what the governor is required to do during an official vacancy. It would be the board that would set dates for new primary and general elections in the 9th.

On Tuesday, Lewis said holding new primaries in the 9th also made sense because it appears absentee ballots also were an issue during last May’s primary elections in the district. Harris won 96 percent of the mail-in ballots in Bladen County on the way to his narrow victory over GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger. The legislation would open the door to Pittenger or anyone else running again in a primary.

The probe has chiefly focused on mail-in absentee ballots in the general election. Bladen was the only county among the eight within the 9th District where Harris won a majority of mail-in absentee ballots over McCready. A Bladen man, McCrae Dowless, has been identified by the board as a “person of interest” related to an alleged absentee ballot operation. He worked for the Harris campaign’s chief strategist.

The measure affecting the 9th District is part of broader legislation that could end a two-year power struggle between Cooper and GOP legislators over control of the elections board. The legislation would largely return elections, ethics enforcement and lobbyist reporting to how it was before Republican lawmakers altered them in a December 2016 special session just before Cooper took office.

Cooper sued successfully three times over GOP versions of a combined ethics and elections board that Republican leaders argued would help produce bipartisan results. But Cooper said Republicans were only trying to erode his power and cause gridlock on where to put early-voting sites and in corruption investigations.

Judges ruled the GOP’s previous efforts to rework the board were unconstitutional since they failed to give the governor control over an executive agency, in part because the proposals didn’t allow him to choose a majority of board members.

The latest bill, which cleared both chambers by wide margins, would again give the governor the majority of seats on a reconstituted elections board. A separate state ethics commission would be revived. The changes wouldn’t take effect until Jan. 31, however, so that the current elections and ethics board could complete its 9th District investigation.

“This bill makes every effort to comply with the court’s ruling and gives Gov. Cooper the partisan control over the State Board of Elections that he has sued for,” Lewis said in a release.

Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said the governor will review the bill. He can sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

Other changes in the bill would address absentee balloting. It would require two people who witness a mail-in absentee voter marking a ballot to also certify the voter’s identity. Some lawmakers contend requiring that identification could discourage fraud like what’s being investigated in the 9th District.