There will be a second election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, after the state election board unanimously voted for a “do-over” in the face of credible accusations of absentee voter fraud against Mark Harris, the Republican candidate who won the initial election in November by about 900 votes.
This seemed the likely outcome even back in December of 2018, when American Legal News first wrote about the controversy in the 9th district. Republicans in the state spent months resisting a second election, but damning testimony from those involved with the race left little doubt that the initial outcome was tainted.
What is the Controversy in the 9th Congressional District?
Going into the 2018 election, the 9th Congressional District was a closely watched race. Located in southern North Carolina, the GOP-held 9th District was a prime target of the Democratic Party, and they successfully recruited former Marine Dan McReady to run for the seat. Harris, his Republican opponent, was a former pastor who had defeated the incumbent Republican Congressman in the primary election.
Questions about the legitimacy of the election arose soon after the race was called for Harris on election night. There were serious discrepancies around absentee ballots in the district, with Harris pulling in an eye-raising percentage of those ballots, particularly in Bladen County.
Suspicion quickly fell on a man named Leslie McRae Dowless, a local Republican operative with a criminal record and a history of shady behavior who ran an absentee ballot operation for Harris. African-American voters submitted affidavits alleging that individuals collected their absentee ballots while claiming they worked for the state, a violation of North Carolina law.
Throughout the controversy, Harris denied any knowledge of illegal activity, and the state’s Republican Party agitated for a certification of the results, arguing that there weren’t enough affected ballots to change the outcome of the race.
However, the narrative quickly changed last week, as the North Carolina election board finally held an evidentiary hearing in the case. Harris’ son testified – and records confirmed – that he had warned his father about hiring Dowless. Another witness testified that Dowless had urged those working for the Harris campaign to stick together because “they don’t have anything on us.”
Harris himself testified before the elections board, and it did not go well. Harris’ attorney eventually stopped the testimony, and when Harris returned to the stand he said he was struggling to remember important facts, as he had suffered two strokes in January.
Harris then said a new election should be called, and the elections board voted 5-0 to do so.
What Happens Next
The new election in the 9th district will be the first “do-over” congressional election since 1975. There are still a lot of questions left to be answered.
First, officials have to agree to a timeline and schedule an election. This will include a primary, a potential run-off (North Carolina law requires a run-off if no primary candidate exceeds 30 percent of the vote) and a general election. Observers believe the most likely timeline is a primary election in May and a general election in October or November.
Second, candidates have to be found. The Democratic side should be fairly straight-forward: McReady seems certain to run in the new election, and he won almost 83 percent of the vote in the May 2018 primary. He has raised nearly $500,000 already.
The Republican primary is a bit more tangled. North Carolina’s GOP-controlled legislature pushed through a law in December mandating a new primary in the case of re-do elections – previously, such a contest would have gone straight to a general election between the previous nominees. That would have pitted McReady against a weakened Harris facing significant legal questions, a strong advantage for the Democrat.
As it stands, Harris has not said if he will run again, though his health problems seem to argue against such a run. The most obvious potential Republican candidate would be Robert Pittenger, who represented the 9th District in Congress before being defeated by Harris in last year’s primary. Pittinger has said he won’t run again, but he declined to comment after the board’s decision. There’s likely to be strong competition in the Republican primary, regardless.
The race in the 9th district was considered a toss-up last year and is likely to be looked at the same way this year. If McReady wins the race, it would represent the 41st Republican-held House seat Democrats have flipped since Election Day 2018.