North Carolina

Fight over NC 9th District election could drag on for months, with no one seated

Mark Harris interviewed by NC election officials

Republican Mark Harris and attorney David Freedman answer questions in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Harris was in Raleigh to be interviewed by the NC Board of Elections in regards to a political scandal in N.C.'s 9th Congressional District.
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Republican Mark Harris and attorney David Freedman answer questions in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Harris was in Raleigh to be interviewed by the NC Board of Elections in regards to a political scandal in N.C.'s 9th Congressional District.

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Election fraud investigation

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A new election might not take place in North Carolina’s disputed 9th District for months even if a new State Board of Elections orders a re-run of the contest, leaving local elections officials scrambling and constituents without representation in the U.S. House.

“The election might wind up in November,” said Gerry Cohen, former special counsel for the North Carolina General Assembly. “Obviously, people would like to have the vacant seat filled earlier. There’s a lot of moving pieces.”

And the timetable for seating a representative in the district that stretches from south Charlotte to Fayetteville got even murkier this week.

Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday that a planned Jan. 11 hearing by the state elections board won’t happen, after the board was dissolved by a three-judge panel last week following a long-running, partisan battle between Cooper and the state legislature over its makeup.

A new state board won’t be appointed and in place until Jan. 31. In the meantime, Republican Mark Harris filed a lawsuit Thursday, asking a Wake County judge to force the state elections board to certify the results in his race against Democrat Dan McCready. Harris held a 905-vote margin in unofficial results, but that race has been clouded by an alleged ballot-harvesting scheme in Bladen County.

If the state board had been able to hold a hearing next week as planned, they could have ordered a new race and started the clock on the election machinery required to hold a new primary, a possible runoff and a general election for the 9th District. That would include a candidate filing period, time for voting absentee and statutory time limits specifying how many days there must be between each phase of the election.

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Instead, it’s now unclear when a new board might hold a hearing, though staff members have said they are continuing their investigation and all subpoenas issued remain valid.

A new state elections board isn’t the only authority that could order a new election.

So could the courts. So could Congress, according to state election officials. And a provision of state law even gives the governor authority to call a new congressional election in some cases.

Another complicating factor: Municipal elections scheduled for this year mean the 140,000 or so 9th District voters who live in Charlotte will have a separate set of elections for mayor and city council. The local primary will be in September, followed by a runoff if necessary in October and the general election in November. Some other municipalities in the 9th District will have elections as well.

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Republican Mark Harris and his attorney David Freedman, left center, walk to the Dobbs Building in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Harris was in Raleigh to be interviewed by the NC Board of Elections in regards to a political scandal in the 9th District. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

“Theoretically, it’d be possible for those people to have six elections this year,” Cohen said, including the congressional primary, possible runoff and general election.

Cohen speculated that if a new election were ordered in the spring, there could be a June or July primary, followed by a September runoff if necessary and a November general election. A runoff is only needed if one candidate doesn’t get 30 percent of the vote — a possibility in what could be a wide-open Republican field — and if there wasn’t a runoff, the general election could be held earlier.

Michael Dickerson, Mecklenburg County’s director of elections, said the county is preparing for the municipal elections and waiting to see what happens with new state elections board.

“Right now we’re just sort of sitting and waiting for anybody to give us instructions,” said Dickerson. “Just playing the waiting game.”

He said the county will be ready for whatever is ultimately ordered.

“We’re looking at how, somehow, all of this would have to be separate from your municipal schedule,” he said. “What we’re looking at is how would that work and where would it work...The trick now is how soon are they going to have a state board.”

In his lawsuit filed Thursday, Harris said the board’s dissolution could mean a longer delay.

“There will be no state board authorized by statute to certify the results of the November 2018 election for many weeks,” Harris’s attorneys wrote.

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The last time there as a vacancy in North Carolina’s congressional delegation, it lasted from January 2014 until that year’s general election — about 10 months, a record at the time. It occurred when Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte became director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, leaving the 12th District seat now held by Rep. Alma Adams open.

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In the absence of a 9th District representative, the House clerk is expected to hire people to handle 9th District constituent services. But Jamie Bowers, former Rep. Robert Pittenger’s chief of staff, said Thursday there’s been no decision on that. His last day was Wednesday.

“There is no office and we haven’t been formally contacted by the House Committee on Administration about resuming operations,” he said. “But we know they’re working on it.”

On Thursday, Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis said he’s ready to help 9th District constituents.

“Given the uncertainty facing North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, all residents should know my Charlotte office is open and ready to help them resolve any issues they may be having with the federal government,” Tillis said in a statement.

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Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.
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