CHARLOTTE, N.C. (CN) – The outcome of North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District race remains shrouded by a cloud of doubt as both parties debate how to investigate absentee ballot inconsistencies in a rural county and revelations of past irregularities emerge.
Democrat Dan McCready conceded to former Baptist pastor Mark Harris after his apparent 905-vote win on election night. But North Carolina’s Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement —comprised of four Democrats, four Republicans and one Independent— voted unanimously last week to not certify the victor of the 9th District election due to “numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities” involving mail-in ballots in the district.
Voters in rural Bladen County began to come forward with claims supporting allegations that a campaign operative for Harris, Leslie McCrae Dowless, masterminded an effort to collect unsealed absentee ballots from voters through paid workers and friends, possibly destroying them or changing the vote.
Dowless, Bladen County’s soil and water conservation district supervisor, is currently at the center of a probe by the elections board
Ginger Eason told local ABC affiliate WSOC-TV on Tuesday that she was paid by someone who worked for the Harris campaign to collect ballots door-to-door in the rural county.
Expressing doubt that the elections board can handle the fraud investigation itself, Republican State Senators Dan Bishop, Tommy Tucker and Paul Newton called on Democratic Governor Roy Cooper on Thursday to establish a bipartisan taskforce to head the investigation into Bladen County’s election inconsistencies.
“What needs to happen right now is a comprehensive and transparent and nonpartisan investigative process so that voters can have confidence that the system is operating as it should,” Bishop said in a press conference on Thursday.
But North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said Thursday that statements from the three Republican lawmakers are a distraction in an effort to “obstruct justice” by the Republican Party.
At a press conference, Goodwin noted that in 2016, the Republican-controlled elections board voted to dismiss a similar-sounding case against Dowless for an alleged ballot-harvesting scheme in Bladen County.
Tucker, R-Union said during his own Thursday press conference that Bladen County has had a “long history of voter fraud, even in both parties,” and that he has heard about suspicious activities in that county since he took office in 2011.
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, told the Associated Press that the party will support a new election in the 9th District if it is found that absentee ballot fraud changed the race’s outcome.
On Wednesday, Democratic U.S. Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia asked the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Republican Trey Gowdy, to hold an emergency hearing to address voting irregularities in the Tar Heel State.
“While the Republican majority is once again chasing conspiracies, real election fraud is playing out right before us in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District,” Connolly said. “We should see every action they take to ignore this situation for what it is – a slap in the face to all voters in North Carolina who participated in the 2018 election with the expectation that every vote would be counted.”
Minority and senior voters were preyed upon leaving “a cloud of doubt and suspicion” hanging over the election, Connolly said in the statement.
In the May primary, Harris had won 437 absentee mail-in votes, while the incumbent Republican Robert Pittenger got only 17.
These irregular absentee-ballot numbers struck Pittenger as odd, according to a Washington Post report. Aides to Pittenger reportedly told the state and national Republican parties that he believed fraud occurred.
In his general-election race against McCready, Harris’ absentee ballot numbers were also unusually high.
“Almost every Republican voter would have had to select Harris, which is not unusual, but every Independent voter and a high number of cross-over Democrats would have voted for Harris as well for this to add up,” J. Michael Bitzer, a professor and elections expert at Catawba University in Salisbury, North Carolina, told Courthouse News.
Only 19 percent of voters who mailed ballots in Bladen County were registered Republicans, yet Harris won about 62 percent of the absentee vote.
Harris said he supports a fair investigation.
Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s voting rights and elections team, said she would like to see an in-depth investigation into the scope of the alleged eletion fraud and an attempt at accounting for the cause of it.
“This is not voter fraud,” Perez clarified. “It might be election fraud, it might be illegal activity, but it was committed upon voters. They were the victims.”
She said the linguistic distinction is critical in creating fair laws that directly address the issue at hand and are tailored to the evidence.
“If we are not careful about our language, you might end up seeing legislation that does not make the process any safer for voters and may serve to put even more barriers in front of the ballot,” Perez said, citing North Carolina Republicans’ years-long dream of enacting photo voter ID laws as an example of misdirected solutions.
Despite partisan bickering over the means, Perez said there are people on all sides who are united in the desire for fair and accurate elections free from fraud – the dispute is on how to get there.