Politics & Government

Everyone is readying for new election in NC’s 9th, but parties are sparring over primary

North Carolina’s state board of elections hasn’t yet ordered a new election in the state’s disputed 9th Congressional District, but Republicans and Democrats are already fighting over the rules governing a new vote.

Republican Mark Harris holds a 905-vote lead over Democrat Dan McCready in the U.S. House race, but the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has refused to certify the results, citing voting irregularities and possible fraud in Bladen and Robeson counties. The board is investigating mail-in absentee ballots in both counties and has subpoenaed the Harris campaign.

It will hold an evidentiary hearing on Jan. 11, more than a week after the new Congress takes office. Democrats in the House are unlikely to seat Harris if his victory has not been certified by the state board.

The Wake County District Attorney’s Office is also conducting a criminal investigation into Bladen County absentee ballots.

Under current state law, if the board calls for a new election it would be a re-do of the general election contest between Harris, McCready and Libertarian Jeff Scott. But the Republican-led General Assembly passed a bill Thursday mandating a new primary election in the district if the board calls for a new election. The bill must be signed by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

“These bad actors may have been even more influential in the primary of 2018 than they were in the general election,” Rep. David Lewis, a Republican, told The News & Observer.

“It certainly looks like we’re heading toward a new election,” said Bill D’Elia, a spokesman for Senate Leader Phil Berger: “ Media reports also indicate potential wrongdoing in the primary, which is why we passed a bill earlier this week to require new primary if the Board calls for a new election.”

In the GOP primary, Harris won 437 mail-in absentee votes in Bladen County to 17 for the incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger. The state board is investigating McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County political operative who allegedly was at the center of a mail-in absentee ballot scheme. Dowless was paid by Harris’ consulting firm, Red Dome Group.

Harris directed the hiring of Dowless despite warnings about the convicted felons methods and history, The Washington Post reported Thursday. Late Friday, WBTV reported that Harris confirmed to them that it was his decision to hire Dowless, but denied any knowledge of wrongdoing.

Democrats and a former N.C. Supreme Court Justice believe that changing the law, at this point, could be unconstitutional.

“Now that the (primary) election has been certified — over and done — it raises constitutional questions whether it is an ex post facto law,” former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, a Republican, told The News & Observer.

North Carolina’s three Democratic representatives in the U.S. House made the same argument.

“For the legislature to preempt that in any way is unacceptable. This is designed to give a partisan advantage,” Rep. David Price, of Chapel Hill, told The News & Observer on Thursday at the Capitol.

Said Price, Rep. G.K. Butterfield of Wilson, and Rep. Alma Adams of Charlotte issued a joint statement: “The Republican super majority in the General Assembly must understand that changing the law after the election, to require a new primary, is likely unconstitutional. This newly enacted legislation discredits North Carolina once again in the eyes of the Nation.”

A primary would give Republicans a chance to remove Harris, whose campaign and consulting firm have been subpoenaed, from the general election ballot. The lawmakers’ move to add a primary was seen by many as an indication of that desire. Harris is a former Baptist pastor who has run for federal office three times since 2014.

“It’s sort of a sign that Republicans would like to have a different candidate other than Harris,” longtime GOP strategist Carter Wrenn told The Charlotte Observer.

It was just a week ago that some state Republicans were calling Harris “an innocent victim” in the election fraud case. Now they are demanding answers from Harris, whose long public silence did little to calm impatient Republicans. Harris released a video message on Dec. 7, claiming he was “absolutely unaware of any wrongdoing.”

Prior to Harris’ interview with WBTV, CNN reported that an unnamed NC GOP official called Harris’ lack of communication “a death wish.”

“We have to hear what Mark Harris has to say and how much he knew about this guy (Dowless),” Phillip Stephens, the chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party, told The News & Observer on Friday.

In his WBTV interview that was posted later Friday, Harris is quoted saying that Dowless “was being vouched for by a number of other leaders down there.”

Wake County’s investigation, which began in January, includes the 2016 election, District Attorney Lorrin Freeman told The News & Obsever on Friday. She said the investigation could extend for several months.

“The focus includes not only what was the nature of voting irregularities of absentee ballots, but also in as much as there may be activity, how would it have been funded and who would’ve been involved in such a scheme — including potentially campaigns and others who may have had an interest in such activity,” Freeman said.

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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.