Politics & Government

As Congress convenes, Mark Harris goes to court and meets with investigators in Raleigh

Republican Mark Harris arrives for interview with NC elections officials on 9th District elections scandal

Republican Mark Harris, the unofficial winner of N.C.'s 9th District congressional election, arrives for interviews with state elections officials in Raleigh, N.C. Jan. 3, 2019.
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Republican Mark Harris, the unofficial winner of N.C.'s 9th District congressional election, arrives for interviews with state elections officials in Raleigh, N.C. Jan. 3, 2019.

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Election fraud investigation

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Republican Mark Harris was meeting with state election investigators Thursday morning even as he asked a Wake County Superior Court judge to certify his election in the 9th Congressional District immediately.

Harris, accompanied by his attorney, David Freedman, arrived at the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement around 10 a.m. There he was to be interviewed about the board’s ongoing probe into allegations of election fraud in the 9th District .

Earlier, the Charlotte Republican filed a petition asking the Wake County Superior Court to order the executive director of the state election board to immediately certify November’s election. Harris led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in unofficial returns.

Harris’s appearance came hours before the new Congress was sworn in without him.

It also came a day after after state elections officials postponed next week’s scheduled hearing into the fraud allegations — and after Gov. Roy Cooper accused Republicans of blocking the probe.

“The petition (to Superior Court) is not to short-circuit the investigation. We’ve got nowhere else to go,” Freedman said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We’re not trying to circumvent. We’re trying to move things as quickly as possible so people in the 9th district will have representation.”

A spokesman for Harris cited the imminent return of Congress for the decision to seek immediate certification.

“Citizens in the 9th Congressional District should not be without a sitting Congressman,” Harris campaign manager Jason Williams said in a statement. “Congress re-convenes on Jan. 3, and Dr. Harris should be sworn-in immediately.”

Republican and former pastor Mark Harris was the unofficial winner of the 9th District congressional seat over Dan McCready, but now he's at the center of a political scandal.

Cooper blames Republicans

The state elections board had scheduled a Jan. 11 hearing into allegations of absentee ballot fraud in Bladen and Robeson counties. The nine-member board has collected thousands of pages of affidavits and other evidence.

But last week a three-judge panel dissolved the board. Because a new, five-member board won’t be in place until Jan. 31, Cooper has sought to appoint a temporary, bipartisan board. But Republicans have declined to recommend any members.

“This failure could obstruct an ongoing investigation into disturbing allegations of election fraud and prevent a duly appointed, constitutional Board of Elections from being able to hear evidence and make an informed decision,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in a statement. “A hearing previously planned for January 11 . . . cannot go forward without members being named to the Board.”

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Gov. Roy Cooper Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Republicans question the legitimacy of a temporary elections board.

“Our unwillingness to participate in the creation of an unlawful ‘interim’ State Board of Elections results from a desire to ensure that any future investigation surrounding the Ninth Congressional District election is open, fair and transparent, and not tainted by actions taken by an illegal board,” GOP Chairman Robin Hayes said in a statement Wednesday. “This unlawful suggestion by the Governor only serves to further erode public confidence in our election system.”

Cooper said while he could appoint three Democrats to the board, he won’t in order “(t)o ensure that the Board remains fair and bipartisan and to make sure all North Carolinians have confidence in its decisions.”

The dispute further clouds the results of the election in the district that stretches from Charlotte to Bladen County.

Interviews continue

Harris defeated three-term Rep. Robert Pittenger in the May primary. He went on to beat McCready, according to unofficial returns.

A state elections board could order a new general election and, because of a law passed recently by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, a new primary. This week two well-known Republicans — Pittenger and former Gov. Pat McCrory — have said they wouldn’t run in any new 9th District primary.

The dispute involves allegations of absentee ballot fraud. At the center of the controversy is McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County elected official and political operative hired in 2018 by Harris through consulting firm Red Dome. One affidavit in the investigation says Dowless had more than 800 absentee ballots in his possession before the May Republican primary.

In its statement, the Harris campaign said the state board “has not disclosed any information to suggest that the votes in question in the board staff’s investigation are sufficient in number to change the outcome of the 9th Congressional District election.”

With or without the Jan. 11 hearing, the elections board staff said the investigation will continue and all subpoenas remain in effect.

“State Board staff will continue to interview witnesses and pursue leads as part of this investigation,” said executive director Kim Westbrook Strach. “This agency remains steadfast in its obligation to ensure confidence in the elections process.”

Democrats won’t seat him

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in Congress have said they’ll refuse to seat Harris when the new House convenes.

“Ordinarily, in order to be seated, you need to have a certificate, which we do not have,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and incoming chair of the Committee on House Administration, said in a pre-Christmas interview with McClatchy.

“If North Carolina doesn’t certify the election, the member’s not seated, there’s nothing for our committee to do,” she added. “North Carolina will figure it out. We don’t have the authority to order an election or anything like that. The only decision the House can make is whether or not to seat someone.”

Harris’ attorney said the candidate has no choice but to go to court, citing confusion over when a new state board will be in place.

“In our request of certification, we’re not asking that the state board stop their investigation and hearing,” Freedman said. “He won the popular vote and should be certified. You can’t hold up the democratic process like that.”

Here's an overview of the election fraud allegations in North Carolina's congressional 9th district.

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

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Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.

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