Do state investigators really have evidence to call 9th District margin into question?
The new State Board of Elections, which won’t be named for another week, is probably the most awaited appointed board in North Carolina in recent memory – all because a congressional seat hangs in the balance.
The 9th Congressional District seat is the only vacant seat in Congress because of allegations of absentee ballot fraud in Bladen and Robeson counties that has prompted a state investigation.
Republican Mark Harris held a 905-vote lead over Democrat Dan McCready after the November election, but the former state board, which was dissolved in December after a court ruled its makeup unconstitutional following a separate legal battle, has refused to certify the results and declare a winner.
Harris tried this week to get a judge to order the elections board to name him the winner as the investigation continues, but the judge rejected his motion, saying the new state board is best positioned to resolve the dispute.
Harris has acknowledged hiring Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless to oversee absentee ballot operations in the county. Several people have told reporters that Dowless paid them to pick up mail-in ballots, a felony under North Carolina law due to tampering concerns.
Dowless has, through his attorney, denied any wrongdoing, but he hasn’t yet sat down with elections board investigators looking at the 9th District.
GOP officials have repeatedly said there are simply not enough votes in question to change the outcome of the race, so Harris should be declared the winner.
But during a court hearing Tuesday on Harris’ motion, Special Deputy Attorney General Amar Majmundar said that argument might not hold water.
“It’s my understanding that there’s sufficient evidence to call that margin into question, Majmundar said.
The statement provides the first glimpse into what state investigators may have uncovered – a hearing into the matter had to be canceled after the board was dissolved, and no date for a hearing can be scheduled until the new board is seated.
But where would all of those votes to erase Harris’ lead come from? One possible source is absentee ballots that were sent out but never returned.
There were about 3,400 across the 9th District, but they’re disproportionately high in Bladen and Robeson counties. The two rural counties made up just 14 percent of the votes cast in the race, but they accounted for half of the absentee ballots that were sent out but never returned.
Some of those voters may have voted in person later, and others simply might not have sent them back. But that would be the case in all of the counties in the district, not just those two.
Bladen and Robeson counties were hard hit by Hurricane Florence in September, and both were targets for absentee voting campaigns by both Democrats and Republicans, which could help account for higher numbers.
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, called Majmundar’s statement “posturing.”
“There’s just no evidence of any kind of large vote destruction. Reporters have been down there for weeks. McCready’s affidavits don’t even show that,” Woodhouse said. “You wouldn’t know how many [ballots] you needed. You couldn’t know what the vote totals were going to be in Union and Mecklenburg [counties].”
State Board of Elections staffers didn’t respond Thursday to requests for comment.