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North Carolina elections board orders new vote in disputed 9th District U.S. House race

Republican Mark Harris reverses course and calls for new election instead of certifying his unofficial win

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

RALEIGH (CFP) — The North Carolina State Board of Elections has ordered a new election for the state’s 9th District U.S. House seat, after hearing four days of testimony about allegations of absentee ballot fraud by a operative working for Republican candidate Mark Harris.

The board’s unanimous February 21 decision came shortly after Harris, who had spent the morning answering questions, returned from a lunch break and called for a new election, saying poor health would not allow him to continue testifying.

Republican candidate Mark Harris weeps during his son’s testimony (From WRAL-TV)

“Through the testimony I’ve listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called,” he said. “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.”

However, Harris insisted that “neither I nor any of the leadership in my campaign were aware of or condone the improper activities that have been testified to.”

The board’s decision sets up a possible rematch between Harris and Democrat Dan McCready in the new election to fill the seat, giving Democrats another pickup opportunity.

However, it is not clear if Harris will be a candidate. He told the elections board that he had suffered two strokes while battling an infection in January and said he was not well enough to answer questions, calling into question if he could withstand a contentious campaign in the glare of the national spotlight.

“Though I thought I was ready to undergo the rigors of this hearing and am getting stronger, clearly I am not, and I struggled this morning with both recall and confusion,” he said.

In December, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature changed state law to require a full primary election in the event the 9th District race was rerun, which gives the GOP the option of ditching Harris and nominating another candidate to face McCready.

McCready took to Twitter to welcom the board’s decision, saying “from the moment the first vote was stolen in North Carolina, from the moment the first voice was silenced by election fraud, the people have deserved justice. Today was a great step forward for democracy in North Carolina.”

McCready has raised more than $500,000 for a rematch in the contested race since December; Harris’s campaign had just $19,000 in cash and $86,000 in unpaid debt at the end of December, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Harris, 52, a longtime Christian conservative activist and former senior pastor at Charlotte’s First Baptist Church, led McCready by 905 votes in unofficial returns after November’s vote.

But the state elections board refused to certify the results amid allegations that a contractor hired by the Harris campaign, McCrae Dowless, had illegally collected absentee ballots in Bladen County, a rural outpost at the eastern end of the district.

Under state law, voters must mail or deliver completed absentee ballots themselves. The board heard testimony that Dowless and people working for him had collected the ballots and then submitted them. Questions were also raised about improprieties in applications for absentee ballots.

Until reversing course at the hearing, Harris had resisted calls by McCready and Democrats for a new election in the 9th District, which includes the suburbs of Charlotte and rural areas to the east toward Fayetteville.

His lawyers and Republican officials had argued that the results should be certified despite the fraud allegations because the number of absentee ballots in question was not sufficient to change the outcome.

The most dramatic testimony during the four-day hearing came from Harris’s son John, a federal prosecutor. He testified that he had warned his father against using Dowless as an operative in the campaign because he was a “shady character.”

Harris sat crying as he watched his son’s testimony, which contradicted his previous assertions that the allegations of illegal activity by Dowless came as a surprise.

No Republican has yet come forward to launch a challenge to Harris. Two possibilities, former Governor Pat McCrory and former U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, who was defeated by Harris in the Republican primary in 2018, have both taken themselves out of the running.

McCready, 34, a former Marine officer and businessman, is not expected to face any challengers on the Democratic side.

If McCready wins the rematch, the 9th District will be the only North Carolina seat to shift from Republican to Democrat and would be the 11th Southern seat to shift in the 2018 cycle. Republicans hold a 101-to-50 advantage in House seats across the 14 Southern states.

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North Carolina lawmakers give 9th District GOP voters option to dump Mark Harris

General Assembly overrides Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of bill requiring primaries in rerun elections

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

RALEIGH (CFP) — North Carolina Republicans will now be able to dump their embattled candidate in the nation’s last undecided U.S. House race, after the General Assembly overrode Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of bill changing state election law.

Under the new law, if state elections officials decide to rerun the 9th District race between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready, both parties will hold primaries, rather than simply redoing the general election.

Mark Harris

That would allow Republicans to replace Harris, whose campaign has become embroiled in an investigation into irregularities in absentee voting in Bladen County, a rural outpost at the edge of the district.

Had the law not been changed, Republicans would have been stuck with Harris as their nominee, raising concerns about losing the seat to McCready in the wake of the investigation.

The controversy over the 9th District race now turns to Washington, where the incoming Democratic majority is expected to refuse to seat Harris pending the outcome of the investigation.

The State Board of Elections. has scheduled a January 11 hearing on the results of the investigation and will then decide whether to order a new election in the 9th District race.

Republicans voted to override Cooper’s veto on December 27, just four days left before they were set to lose their legislative super-majority that has allowed them to override Cooper repeatedly over the last two years.

Cooper’s objection to the law was not over the new primary requirement but a different provision that shielded campaign finance complaints against elected officials from public disclosure.

Republicans hold a two-thirds majority in both houses of the General Assembly, and they have overridden more than 20 of Cooper’s vetoes since he took office in 2017. However, because of Democratic gains in November, the GOP super-majority will go away in January, although Republicans will still control both houses.

The state elections board refused to certify Harris’s unofficial 905-vote lead over McCready after reports surfaced that a political operative working for Harris’s campaign, McRae Dowless, had hired people to collect absentee ballots in Bladen County, a practice that is illegal in North Carolina.

Bladen County also had an unusually high number of absentee ballot requests, and Harris carried the absentee vote by 24 percentage points, a much higher percentage than elsewhere in the district, which stretches across eight counties from suburban Charlotte toward Fayetteville.

Harris has said that he personally made the decision to hire Dowless, but he said he did not know Dowless was doing anything illegal.

Dowless has not spoken publicly about the allegations but has denied any wrongdoing to local media.

McCready, who conceded to Harris on election night, has withdrawn his concession and is now raising money for a rematch.

Also possibly waiting in the wings for Harris in Republican primary is the man who now holds the seat, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, whom Harris defeated by just 828 votes in the May primary after taking 96 percent of the absentee vote in Bladen — results that have come under renewed scrutiny since the state board’s refusal to certify the general election results.

Harris, 52, a Baptist pastor and prominent religious conservative activist, is making his third bid for political office, after losing a U.S. Senate race in 2014 and the 9th District race in 2016.

McCready, 34, a former Marine officer and Iraq War veteran, is making his political debut.

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North Carolina lawmakers allow GOP to ditch Mark Harris if disputed U.S. House race is rerun

Harris confirms he hired political operative at center of absentee ballot investigation but says he was unaware of illegal activity

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

CHARLOTTE (CFP) — The Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature has voted to require party primaries if state elections officials order a rerun of the disputed 9th District U.S. House race — a move that would allow the GOP to ditch Mark Harris, their current nominee who is at the center of an absentee voting scandal.

Mark Harris

In another development, Harris — in his first interview since the scandal broke — told Charlotte TV station WTVB that he personally made the decision to hire McRae Dowless, the Bladen County political operative at the center of an investigation by the State Board of Elections. But he said he did not know Dowless was doing anything illegal.

The state board, which has refused to certify Harris’s unofficial 905-vote lead over Democrat Dan McCready, will hold an evidentiary hearing on the election dispute on January 11, which means that Harris is unlikely to be seated when the new Congress convenes on January 3.

Harris told WBTV that he decided to hire Dowless after narrowly losing a Republican primary for the 9th District seat in 2016, in which an opponent who hired Dowless had a strong performance among absentee voters in Bladen, a rural outpost at the eastern end of the district.

“I remember looking at that and going, ‘Wow, that’s unusual,'” Harris said.

Harris said the services Dowless offered included canvassing people to fill out absentee ballot requests and then helping them cast and mail in their ballots — not collecting and returning ballots for them, which is illegal in North Carolina.

“I remember (Dowless) saying specifically that they were not to take a ballot. They were not to touch a ballot,” Harris said, noting that Dowless had been “vouched for by a number of other leaders down there.”

“I had no reason to think that what he was doing was illegal,” Harris said.

The state board refused to certify the election after evidence surfaced that Dowless and workers that he hired had collected ballots during the November vote. Bladen County also had an unusually high number of absentee ballot requests, and Harris carried the absentee vote by 24 percentage points.

Dowless has not spoken publicly about the allegations but has denied any wrongdoing to local media.

Harris said the board’s refusal to certify the election was “frustrating” plans to set up his congressional offices and get committee assignments.

“It’s been very frustrating because I’ve been elected to serve the 9th District, and I don’t feel like the 9th District is getting served,” he said.

In his interview, Harris did not directly criticize GOP legislative leaders for moving to force a new primary. But he did say, “I certainly don’t feel the circling of the wagons around Harris the way I see the Democrats circling the wagons around McCready.”

The bill passed December 13 by the legislature would require Democratic and Republican primaries if a rerun of the 9th District election is ordered. Had the law not been changed, Republicans would have been stuck with Harris as their nominee, raising concerns about losing the seat to McCready in the wake of the investigation.

McCready, who conceded to Harris on election night, has withdrawn his concession and is now raising money for a rematch.

Also possibly waiting in the wings for Harris in Republican primary is the man who now holds the seat, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, whom Harris defeated by just 828 votes in the May primary after taking 96 percent of the absentee vote in Bladen — results that have come under renewed scrutiny since the state board’s refusal to certify the general election results.

The bill mandating a primary — contained in a larger package of election reforms passed during a lame duck legislative session — is awaiting Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s signature. If Cooper vetoes the bill, Republicans would have the votes to override him.

Because of Democratic gains in November, Republicans will only hold veto-proof majorities until January, when the new legislature takes office.

Harris, 52, a Baptist pastor and prominent religious conservative activist, is making his third bid for political office, after losing a U.S. Senate race in 2014 and the 9th District race in 2016.

McCready, 34, a former Marine officer and Iraq War veteran, is making his political debut.

The 9th District takes in eight counties stretching from the suburbs of Charlotte east toward Fayetteville.

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Republican Mark Harris will support new vote in North Carolina’s 9th U.S. District if fraud affected outcome

Harris, who has a 905-vote lead in unofficial results, insists he was “absolutely unaware” of wrongdoing

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

CHARLOTTE (CFP) — Mark Harris, the Republican candidate in North Carolina’s 9th U.S. House District, said he will support a new election if elections officials find proof that voter fraud affected the outcome of the November 6 vote.

Congressional candidate Mark Harris, R-North Carolina

In a video released December 7, Harris also said he was “absolutely unaware” of any wrongdoing by his campaign and pledged to cooperate with an investigation by the North Carolina State Board of Elections into allegations of fraud in absentee ballots linked to a subcontractor paid for work by his campaign.

“I’m hopeful that this process will ultimately result in the certification of my election to Congress,” Harris said. “However, if this investigation finds proof of illegal activities on either side to such a level that it could have changed the outcome of this election, then I would wholeheartedly support a new election to insure all voters have confidence in the results.”

Harris, 52, a Baptist pastor and prominent religious conservative activist, holds a 905-vote lead in unofficial results. But the state board refused to certify the results after allegations of fraud in the distribution and collection of absentee ballots in Bladen County, a rural outpost that Harris carried over his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready.

The 9th District includes parts of eight counties stretching from the suburbs of Charlotte east toward Fayettteville.

Congressional candidate Dan McCready, D-North Carolina

McCready, who had conceded to Harris on election night, took to Twitter to withdraw his concession and demand that Harris answer questions about the fraud allegations.

“I didn’t serve overseas in the Marine Corps just to come back home and watch politicians and career criminals attack our democracy,” McCredy said. “I call on Mark Harris to tell us exactly what he knew and when he knew it.”

McCready, 34, served four years as a Marine officer, including service in the Iraq war.

The fraud allegations swirl around Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., who the state board has identified as “a person of interest” in its investigation. The board has subpoenaed documents from the Harris campaign and the Red Dome Group, a Charlotte-based political consultancy that helped run Harris’s campaign and has said it hired Dowless as a subcontractor.

Voters in Bladen County have signed affidavits saying that they were approached at their homes by people offering to collect their absentee ballots for them and return them to the county elections office. That practice, known as ballot harvesting, is illegal in North Carolina.

One of those ballot harvesters, Ginger Eason, told WSOC-TV that she was paid by Dowless to collect the ballots. Dowless has kept a low profile since the allegations surfaced but has denied any wrongdoing to the Charlotte Observer.

Dowless, who has a previous conviction for insurance fraud, was investigated by the state elections board over voting irregularities in 2016. The board referred its findings to federal and state prosecutors.

In addition to concerns about ballot harvesting, the absentee vote totals in Bladen have also raised questions. More than 1,340 voters in Bladen requested absentee ballots, but only 684 were actually cast. And while McCready beat Harris among absentee voters in the rest of the district, Harris won by a 24-point margin in the absentee vote in Bladen.

In the GOP primary, Harris ousted incumbent U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger by just 828 votes, a race in which Harris took 437 absentee votes to just 17 for Pittenger in Bladen, a whopping margin of 96 percent.

If the state elections board finds that fraud affected the outcome of the vote, it could order an election rerun between Harris and McCready. Republicans could not replace Harris on the ballot unless he dies or moves out of state.

However, the new Democrat-controlled House in Washington could refused to seat Harris, which would trigger an entirely new election, in which both parties would pick nominees in primaries.

The Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, has indicated that refusing to seat Harris is a possibility if the state board decides not to act.

“This is bigger than that one seat. This is about undermining the integrity of our elections,” Pelosi said. “What was done there was so remarkable, in that that person, those entities, got away with that.”

The state elections board is made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and one member without a party affiliation.

The 9th District was one of four GOP-held seats in North Carolina targeted by Democrats in 2018. Republicans won the other three.

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Decision ’18: Fraud allegations swirl around North Carolina 9th District U.S. House race

State elections board refuses to certify Republican Mark Harris’s win, launches investigation

RALEIGH (CFP) — The North Carolina State Board of Elections has refused to certify the results of the results in the 9th District U.S. House race and will hold a hearing to hear evidence of “claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities” during the November vote.

Dan McCready

Mark Harris

The decision means that Republican Mark Harris’s apparent 905-vote victory over Democrat Dan McCready will not become official for at least three weeks, as elections officials vet claims of possible fraud in Bladen County, a rural outpost at the eastern end of the district that went heavily for Harris.

The Associated Press, which had called the race for Harris, has rescinded its projection. McCready, who had conceded to Harris, said he was “shocked” by the board’s decision.

“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy,” McCready said in a Twitter post. “Any effort to rob a person of that right should be met with the full force of justice.”

Harris called on the board to certify the results pending the investigation, saying delaying the certification would be a “disservice” to voters in the district, which stretches across eight counties along the South Carolina border from the suburbs of Charlotte toward Fayetteville.

“I support any efforts to investigate allegations of irregularities and/or voter fraud, as long as it is fair and focuses on all political parties,” he said in a statement. “But to date, there is absolutely no public evidence that there are enough ballots in question to affect the outcome of this race.”

Before voting to delay the certification, the board — which has four Democrats, four Republicans and one unaffiliated member — met in closed session and did not offer any details about the fraud allegations in a statement issued afterward.

However, the Charlotte Observer reported that the board acted after receiving affidavits from voters in Bladen who said they received absentee ballots they did not request or had people appear at their door to collect their absentee ballots, efforts linked to a contractor working for the Harris campaign.

Under state law, absentee ballots can be mailed or delivered directly to county elections offices before election day. But it is illegal for anyone other than a relative or guardian to deliver a voter’s ballot on their behalf.

Harris carried Bladen County by 1,557 votes, more than his entire districtwide margin of victory. However, his margin among absentee voters — 420 to 258 — is less, indicating that absentee fraud in Bladen alone would be unlikely to overturn the final result.

The Observer reported 7.5 percent of registered voters in Bladen requested an absentee ballot, about twice the rate in the rest of the district.

In the GOP primary, Harris ousted incumbent U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger by just 828 votes, a race in which Harris took 437 absentee votes to just 17 for Pittenger in Bladen County, a whopping margin of 96 percent.

Asked in an interview with Spectrum News about the possibility of fraud, Pittenger said, “It’s been out there. We were fully aware of it. There’s some pretty unsavory people out, particularly in Bladen County. And I didn’t have anything to do with them.”

Harris, 52, former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charlotte, has been a long-time activist among religious conservatives. He made an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate in 2014.

McCready, 34, is a businessman and former Marine Corps captain making his first run for political office.

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