North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District was home to arguably the only competitive election in the state during the recent midterms. Democrat Dan McReady, a Marine veteran, waged a strong campaign against Republican Mark Harris in the district, located in the southern part of the state.
But while McReady raised a large amount of money and garnered some national attention, his campaign seemed to fall short. Once the votes were counted, the race was called for Harris, who defeated the incumbent Republican Congressman in an earlier primary election. Harris appeared to have won by approximately 900 votes.
Now, however, the 9th Congressional district has been roiled by that rarest of sights – credible accusations of election fraud. Specifically, there are widely reported concerns that the Harris campaign, through a local political operative, tampered with absentee ballots.
The results of the race have been thrown into doubt, and the state election board is refusing to certify the election while an investigation is underway.
A Question of Absentee Ballots
The controversy revolves around Leslie McRae Dowless, a local Republican operative who worked for Harris in both the primary and general elections.
Local and state officials are investigating claims that Dowless was running an illegal operation focused on collecting and disposing of absentee ballots across the district, but particularly in rural Bladen County.
Analysis has found that requests for absentee ballots in Bladen County were deeply unusual when compared to the rest of the district. Bladen had the highest share of mail absentee ballots in the district, and it was the only county in the district where Harris won the absentee votes. In addition, while 41 percent of the Bladen County mail voters were Democrats, Harris, the Republican, won 61 percent of the mail votes.
Perhaps even more troublesome, Robeson County, where McReady won more than 56 percent of the votes, easily led the district in number of requested absentee ballots that were not returned.
While individuals and campaigns are allowed to assist voters in requesting absentee ballots, state law prohibits anyone from collecting the ballots and turning them in themselves. Obviously, collecting a voter’s ballot and simply throwing it away also runs afoul of state law.
And there is more evidence than statistical analysis. The Democratic Party has submitted affidavits from local voters – many of them African-Americans – who allege that individuals collected their ballots under the auspices of working for the state.
The state election board has subpoenaed documents from the Harris campaign, and the Wake County district attorney is also investigating the fraud claims.
Dowless has been convicted of fraud and perjury in the past. In addition, the state election board investigated him in 2016 for similar absentee ballot irregularities. And Harris’ successful primary challenge in the spring was attributable in large part to winning 96 percent of Bladen County’s absentee mail-in ballots, a highly unusual figure.
The Harris campaign has said it followed the law at all times.
Where the 9th Congressional District Goes From Here
Republicans in North Carolina have, predictably, called for the state election board to certify the results, contending that there weren’t enough questionable ballots to affect the outcome of the race. However, this seems almost impossible to determine for sure, as the allegations include the illegal disposal of Democratic absentee ballots. These obviously weren’t included in any vote counts.
At this point, there are a few possible outcomes. The various investigations could satisfy the state board of elections, which would then certify the results, whatever they end up being.
Alternatively, the state board of elections could refuse to certify the results and order a new election, which wouldn’t take place until well after the new Congress is seated in January. They can do this even if they believe that there aren’t enough affected ballots to change the election results. In this case, the candidates would not change – Harris would run against McReady again (there would also be the same Libertarian candidate on the ballot).
Finally, the House of Representatives, which will be controlled by Democrats once the new Congress is seated, could refuse to seat Harris even if the election is certified – Democratic leaders have already said that is an option. In that case, the entire election cycle would re-start, and there would have to be a new primary. Anyone eligible to run could do so.
This remains an active story. American Legal News will continue following developments in the 9th District and will provide updates as needed.