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NC board again declines to certify Mark Harris victory as mail-in ballots questioned

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North Carolina’s state board of elections again declined to certify Republican Mark Harris’ apparent victory over Democrat Dan McCready in the 9th Congressional District on Friday, instead calling for a hearing to discuss the matter on or before Dec. 21.

Harris won the race by 905 votes, but the validity of mail-in absentee ballots from in and around Bladen County have been called into question.

On Friday, the Associated Press retracted its call of a winner in the race.

The board’s evidentiary hearing is due “to claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities related to absentee mail ballots” and “to assure that the election is determined without taint of fraud or corruption and without irregularities that may have changed the result of an election,” said Joshua Malcolm, vice chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

The vote was 7-2 to hold the hearing. Two of the board’s four Republicans voted yes.

This week Democratic Party attorney John Wallace presented the state elections board with notarized affidavits from voters that raised concerns about people improperly collecting mail-in ballots and voters receiving mail-in ballots they did not request, the Charlotte Observer reported.

Bladen County had the highest percentage of absentee ballot requests in the state, The Observer reported.

In Bladen, Harris won 61 percent of the votes from mail-in ballots even though registered Republicans accounted for only 19 percent of the county’s accepted absentee ballots, an analysis by Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer showed. It was the only county in the district in which Harris won mail-in ballots.

Unreturned ballots

In Bladen and neighboring Robeson County, a strikingly large share of the mail-in absentee ballots requested by voters were not returned to elections officials, state election data show.

A News & Observer analysis of data on mail-in ballots in the district found:

Across the 9th district, which stretches from Charlotte to Fayetteville along North Carolina’s southern border, 24 percent of the requested mail-in ballots were unreturned. In Robeson County, 64 percent of mail-in ballots requested did not make it back to elections officials. In Bladen County, the figure was 40 percent.

The unreturned ballots are disproportionately associated with minority voters. More than 40 percent of the ballots requested by African Americans and more than 60 percent of those requested by American Indians did not make it back to elections officials. For white voters, that figure was just 17 percent.

In Bladen County, the breakdown for African Americans and American Indians generally reflected the district-wide figures. But in Robeson County, 75 percent of the mail-in ballots requested by African Americans and 69 percent of the mail-in ballots requested by American Indians were listed as unreturned.

In other counties hard-hit by Hurricane Florence, as Bladen and Robeson were, the share of unreturned mail-in ballots was not as high. In Columbus County, 29 percent of the mail-in ballots requested were unreturned. In Pender County, the figure was 18 percent.

The analysis excluded data on voters who requested more than one ballot.

Results still not final

The nine members of the elections board met for nearly three hours in closed session on Friday. They certified results for several elections across the state, but not in the 9th.

“We applaud the board’s bipartisan decision to delay certification and fully investigate the concerning allegations in the Ninth Congressional District. North Carolina voters deserve to know the truth and their voices deserve to be heard,” said Wayne Goodwin, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, in a statement.

On Tuesday, the board refused to certify the results of the Harris-McCready race in a unanimous decision. Malcolm, a Robeson County Democrat, told the board that he was “very familiar with unfortunate activities that have been happening down in my part of the state. And I am not going to turn a blind eye to what took place to the best of my understanding.”

North Carolina Republicans have complained about the board’s secrecy on the matter.

“I am EXTREMELY concerned about the severe lack of transparency by the Governor’s Board of Elections. The people have been given no information beyond cryptic sentences as to why a congressional race has not be certified. This cannot — and will not — stand,” tweeted Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican.

Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, said the board should certify the results with Harris as winner.

“The certification of a race and continuing to investigate whether a person or persons did something untoward are not mutually exclusive. We investigate stuff all the time and probably should do more, but you have to have a standard,” Woodhouse told The News & Observer. “At this point, we believe the law requires there be enough evidence that the race could be in doubt. They have shown nothing.”

Harris attended the House’s new member orientation in Washington, D.C., last week. Harris was again in Washington on Friday as new members of the House participated in a lottery to determine the order for picking their offices.

“Make no mistake, 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. But to date, there is absolutely no public evidence that there are enough ballots in question to affect the outcome of this race,” Harris said in a statement released Friday. “Accordingly, the Board should act immediately to certify the race while continuing to conduct their investigation. Anything else is a disservice to the people of the Ninth District.”

It’s still unclear what will happen next month at the elections board. In October, a three-judge panel ruled the board unconstitutional. A stay in the ruling that allowed the board to operate as-is had been set to expire Monday. But on Friday, a new stay was granted for two weeks, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger said. The legislature and Gov. Roy Cooper’ office continue to negotiate to find a solution for the elections board composition.

Harris called for the board to remain in place until his race is certified.

Harris defeated Rep. Robert Pittenger in the Republican primary in May by 828 votes. In that election, Harris won 437 absentee votes in Bladen County, and Pittenger won 17 votes, according to the state board.

Lauren Horsch of the NC Insider contributed.
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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.