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Calls mount for new election in NC’s 9th District

December 12, 2018 GMT

The likelihood that North Carolina will have a new election for the contested 9th Congressional District ratcheted up again Tuesday, with top officials for the state Republican Party openly suggesting it.

The latest straw seemed to be word that Bladen County ran its early voting totals earlier than allowed by state law and the suggestion that results were leaked to unknown parties before they should have been public. North Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said Tuesday that GOP officials “feel pretty sure” it happened.

Woodhouse didn’t elaborate in an afternoon press conference in Charlotte, but he and party Chairman Robin Hayes both said that, if it did, that’s enough to throw the election results in doubt and require a new election.

Whether a new primary should be held as well, Woodhouse said, party officials aren’t ready to say. For a time Tuesday, House Elections Committee Chairman David Lewis said a broader bill on election rules would contain a provision to hold a new primary, instead of just a do-over general election, if the state goes this route.

But that provision was stripped from the bill late Tuesday for lack of key support.

As for the leaked results, a Democratic precinct worker in Bladen County named Agnes Willis swore in an affidavit provided to state investigators almost two weeks ago that the county’s early voting results were run on the Saturday before the election and viewed “by officials at the one-stop site who were not judges.”

The chairman for the Bladen County Board of Elections has denied that the results were shared with either side early.

State law says early votes should be counted on Election Day and that results can’t be released until 7:30 p.m. Sharing them early with one campaign over another would help with last-minute strategy.

Bladen County Board of Elections Chairman Bobby Ludlum told WRAL News last week that the results were run soon after the county’s in-person early voting site finished its last day of voting, the Saturday before the election. Ludlum said he discussed the timing with the location’s chief judge.

“It’s normally run when the machines shut down,” Ludlum said. “It’s kept secret and taken to the elections office and put in the safe.”

Asked if anyone who shouldn’t have seen those results saw them, Ludlum said, “absolutely not.”

“I certainly didn’t see them and didn’t want to,” he said.

As the law stands now, election law experts have said, if the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement orders a new election, it would essentially be a do-over of the general, pitting Republican Mark Harris against Democrat Dan McCready and Libertarian Jeff Scott. Harris seemed to win the first go-around by 905 votes over McCready, but questions about the handling of absentee ballots in the district – particularly by a man working for Harris’ election – led the state board to begin an investigation.

Primaries in this race have been final for months, but there are questions about absentee results in Harris’ win over Congressman Robert Pittenger. Harris beat Pittenger by 828 votes district-wide, but Harris won 96 percent of Bladen County’s mail-in absentee vote.

The General Assembly is in session and tinkering with the state board’s makeup because of an ongoing legal battle between the GOP lawmakers and Gov. Roy Cooper. Lewis, R-Harnett, told reporters Tuesday that bill would allow for a new primary.

“All indications are that the same activities that are alleged to have occurred concerning absentee ballots in the general election appear to have also occurred in the primary,” he said. “Voters will have an opportunity to start over by selecting a new candidate, if they so choose.”

That language was removed, and a source close to House leadership later said the Senate wouldn’t accept the change.

Pat Ryan, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, confirmed that GOP caucus members in the Senate raised concerns with “discarding certified election results before an investigation reveals conclusive evidence of wrongdoing.”

“The provision in question would have invalidated the official primary certification if the board ordered a new general election, even if the board did not find fraud had occurred during the primary,” Ryan said in a text message.

Ryan also said Senate leadership believes the state board “maintains legal authority to investigate the primary and order a new primary election if it concludes that fraud occurred during the primary as well.”

That has not been the interpretation of others following the case. The U.S. House of Representatives has final say over who it seats when the new Congress convenes in January, though, and has the power to order a new primary, long-time North Carolina legislative and elections attorney Gerry Cohen said.

Lewis also said Tuesday that the new voter photo ID law they’re working on this session would not apply if a new election is held, but would be put on hold until September.

“We strongly believe in and support the concept of voter ID, which I’m sure you know, but as we’ve said all along, we want people to be able to fully comply with the law, and we simply will not be ready to turn the switch much earlier than that,” he said.

Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, said the legislation also calls on the state elections board to investigate mail-in absentee voting statewide for the past five election cycles, and it proposes “modest” changes to absentee balloting, including having witnesses certify that they know the identity of the person who filled out the ballot. County elections officials would then send that witness information to the state board,

The state board initially planned to wrap its investigation by Dec. 21 and hold a public hearing, but the board chairman indicated in a letter Monday that timetable may be pushed back. Chairman Josh Malcolm wrote that subpoenas have been issued to “various organizations,” and that attorneys for have “uniformly indicated additional time is needed for review and production of additional materials.”

The board has confirmed only three subpoenas on the record: One to the Harris campaign, one to a main consultant, Red Dome Group, and one to Bladen County Sheriff James McVicker’s campaign.

Also Tuesday, state Democrats called on Harris to answer detailed questions about his campaign’s connections to McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County man with a criminal record and a history of running absentee ballot operations for Democrats and Republicans alike in the county. Dowless worked for the Harris campaign this year through Red Dome Group.

Dowless has drawn the focus of investigators, and it appears from interviews with women who worked with him that he sent crews door to door in Bladen and Robeson counties. In some cases, voters have said those women left with their absentee ballots, which would be a felony.

Generally speaking, it’s illegal for anyone but a close relative to take control of someone’s absentee ballot due to tampering concerns.

If a new election is held, Hayes said the state board must assume control of Bladen County’s election apparatus, which has “shown itself incapable of managing fair elections.” Hayes noted the resignation late last week of a Democratic member of the county Board of Elections who once had a political consulting business with Dowless.

North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said during a Tuesday press conference that Harris should explain how he met Dowless, who introduced him, what he thought Dowless was doing, whether the campaign performed a background check and whether Dowless was promised a $40,000 win bonus, as was alleged in another affidavit collected by the Democratic Party from a Bladen County man, based on overhearing a group of unidentified people talking outside a precinct.

Republicans have sought to broaden questions about election irregularities in Bladen and Robeson counties by pointing to Democratic groups that have done similar work to the operation Dowless allegedly headed, but Goodwin and Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, repeatedly used the phrase “Republican scandal” during their Tuesday press conference at state party headquarters.

“Getting to the bottom of this Republican scandal begins with Mark Harris answering some very important questions,” Goodwin said.

Harris has issued statements saying he was unaware of any wrongdoing and that he’s cooperating with investigators. He said in a short video released via social media Friday that he’d accept a new election if substantial fraud is found.

But Harris has not given media interviews. It’s not known whether he has met with state investigators or with the Wake County District Attorney’s Office, which has an ongoing criminal investigation into the election results and questions about absentee results in the area going back to at least 2016.

An attorney for Harris’ campaign did not immediately respond Tuesday to an email seeking comment. Woodhouse said he and other party officials haven’t seen anything to indicate that Harris “participated or would condone this behavior.”

“We believe it is against his character,” Woodhouse said. “We know him to be a good man. That is our only experience with him.”