CHARLOTTE, N.C. (CN) – A three-judge panel ordered the North Carolina Board of Elections to dissolve Friday amid the board’s decision to postpone an evidentiary hearing on possible absentee-ballot fraud by a Republican operative in two rural counties.
The board disbanded without certifying the results of the November election for the 9th Congressional District, leaving the question of whether Republican candidate Mark Harris will be sworn in on Jan. 3 in doubt.
Harris appeared to defeat his Democratic opponent by just 905 votes on Nov. 6. But, the nine-member, bipartisan elections board refused to certify the race’s outcome due to a significantly uncanny number of absentee votes he received in some counties, said J. Michael Bitzer, a professor and elections expert at Catawba University in Salisbury, North Carolina.
Several sworn affidavits said a get-out-the-vote operative Harris hired in Bladen County, McCrae Dowless, collected hundreds of unsealed absentee ballots. A state probe into possible ballot tampering and whether Harris knew of Dowless’ allegedly illegal methods grew more complex as reporters interviewed voters claiming Dowless duped them.
Affidavits disclosed to the state by Marc Elias, a prominent Democratic attorney, say Dowless and others were given access to special information by the Bladen County elections board.
While the state elections board originally planned to hear evidence Dec. 21, it moved the hearing to Jan. 11. That decision led to the court ordering the dissolution of the board in its current form by noon Friday.
The same court previously found the board's makeup was unconstitutional after the Republican-controlled Legislature altered the board in 2016 to contest the appointment power of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
According to the three-judge panel, the board has not complied with previous orders and did not provide enough information about why it decided to delay the evidentiary hearing.
State law requires Cooper to appoint a new board, but not until Jan. 31. Cooper said Friday he would appoint an interim board, a move Republican lawmakers vowed to fight.
"The governor is following the law and the Republican Party chairman should, too. His refusal to submit nominees and his directive to stop potential nominees from accepting appointment is an attempt to impede and obstruct an ongoing investigation,” Cooper’s spokesman Ford Porter said in a statement. “Empty chairs on the Board of Elections help no one."
Of state Republican Party chair Robin Hayes’ statement Friday that the GOP will not submit nominees for the interim elections board, Cooper’s general counsel William McKinney said, “It is unfortunate that your refusal to follow the law could obstruct and ongoing investigation when a duly appointed and constitutional elections board can hear evidence about disturbing allegations of election fraud, oversee an ongoing investigation and make an informed decision.”
Harris meanwhile lobbied a judge to certify the November election so he can be sworn in when Congress returns to work Jan. 3.
"The State Board has failed to specifically outline any facts to support its decision not to certify the election results in the 9th District other than its references to 'irregularities,'” Harris says in his petition.
Even assuming a judge will grant Harris’ petition, he may not end up taking his seat in the 116th Congress: Incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Friday that House Democrats will refuse to seat Harris on Jan. 3 due to the fraud claims surrounding his campaign.
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