Politics & Government

A proposal for a new 9th District congressional primary dies as elections bill advances

A proposal for a new primary in the 9th Congressional District was stripped from an elections bill Tuesday after the sponsor said he could not get enough legislators to go along.

Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, wanted a new primary if the State Board of Elections orders a new election in the 9th District.

“All indications are that the same activity that is alleged to have occurred concerning absentee ballots appeared to have also occurred in the primary,” Lewis said Tuesday afternoon. “Voters will have the opportunity to start over by selecting a new candidate if they so choose.”

The primary was not in the proposal the House will vote on Wednesday. Lewis said he couldn’t get enough legislators negotiating the bill to sign off on the idea.

The state elections board has been been investigating allegations of fraud over the mail-in absentee ballots in the November general election.

Leading Republican legislators said their bill will settle a long-running dispute with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper over the composition of the State Board of Elections.

Lewis and Sen. Dan Bishop, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said the bill returns the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement’s construction to the way it was before 2017, with the governor making appointments. It also splits the board back in two with a separate Ethics Commission. The elections board will continue ongoing investigations.

Political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless is at the center of an investigation of mishandling of absentee ballots in those counties for the 9th Congressional District race. He worked for Republican Mark Harris of Charlotte, who appeared to defeat Democrat Dan McCready. The elections board has twice refused to certify the election results. On Tuesday, leaders of the state GOP said a new election would be appropriate if reports that early vote totals were released before the Nov. 6 election were true.

If there’s a new election, voters won’t have to show photo identification.

The bill also sets up new requirements for absentee voting. Counties would have to send the state elections board information on absentee ballot requests and ballots issued.

Lewis said Cooper has not agreed to support the bill.

The bill would also keep campaign finance investigations secret and have county District Attorneys bring charges in most cases, rather than the Wake County prosecutor.

Bishop said the bill on campaign finance prosecutions clarifies existing law.

The bill also puts new time limits on when campaign finance investigations can be initiated.

The bill gives a new role to the Ethics Commission. If asked by the elections board, it would make confidential recommendations on criminal referrals.

Bob Hall, who has asked the state elections board to investigate suspected campaign finance violations, said making the investigations confidential and sending cases to the candidate’s home county to consider for prosecution were both bad ideas.

“I think it’s very troublesome,” said Hall, who is the retired executive director of Democracy NC. “I think they’re trying to hide from accountability.”

The investigation into election fraud in Bladen County illustrates the problem with making counties responsible for prosecutions., Hall said.

Dowless also worked to help Bladen Sheriff Jim McVicker win election, The News & Observer reported. Dowless and Bladen elections board vice-chairman Jens Lutz, who resigned last week, were once in business together.

“I think the Bladen County situation illustrates the problem with letting local DAs and sheriffs be in control of the investigations involving local political organizations, local campaigns and local operatives,” Hall said. “It’s too incestuous. You need to take it out of that arena.”

The confidentiality requirement and having local prosecutors handle cases is “a formula for cronyism and shielding wrong-doing,” Hall said.

Lewis said Tuesday that the elections board would still investigate campaign finance complaints and would be able to say publicly if it is conducting an investigation.

“They’ll have all the powers they have now,” he said.

The State Board of Elections has conducted a number of campaign finance investigations in the last five years, one of which resulted in a prison sentence for a Republican who was then the longest-serving state senator.

Former Sen. Fletcher Harstell of Concord was sentenced to eight months in prison on federal charges for using $210,000 in campaign donations for personal expenses such as car repairs, haircuts, club memberships and theater tickets.

In October, the elections board found that Rep. Rodney Moore, a Charlotte Democrat, failed to report more than $141,000 in contributions and expenditures, the Charlotte Observer reported. The board forwarded the case to prosecutors. Moore was defeated in the May primary.

Last month, Republican Sen. Ralph Hise of Spruce Pine settled a campaign finance complaint. The settlement didn’t reveal the result of the investigation. Hise paid $4,000 to reimburse the cost of the investigation and a $500 civil penalty.

Follow more of our reporting on The North Carolina election fraud investigation

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Lynn Bonner has worked at The News & Observer since 1994, and has written about the state legislature and politics since 1999. Contact her at lbonner@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4821.