With the tables turning in the House of Representatives, it appears that the soon-to-be Democratic majority will not seat Republican candidate Mark Harris on January 3rd due to an ongoing investigation into electoral fraud committed by his campaign. Harris, who pulled ahead in the North Carolina 9th District race by a mere 905 votes, has not had his victory certified by the state elections board, after it was revealed that his campaign may have been improperly collecting — and in some cases filling out and destroying — mail-in ballots from voters in the district.
“I’ve simply said if Mr. Harris is not certified as the duly, fairly, legally elected member we would certainly oppose his seating,” said incoming House majority leader Steny Hoyer in an interview with MSNBC. Hoyer called for a new general election in North Carolina to resolve the issue, saying that it was clear “from all sides” that fraud was committed during the campaign.
“In this instance, the integrity of our democratic process outweighs concerns about the seat being vacant at the start of the new Congress,” Hoyer told the Washington Post. The North Carolina 9th District race is, as a result, the last undecided race of the 2018 midterm elections.
The allegations against the Harris campaign have focused on an individual campaign employee, Leslie McCrae Dowless, a longtime campaign worker who has run up against similar accusations of unscrupulous behavior in the past. The conduct of the Harris campaign, and subsequently of Dowless himself, was drawn to the attention of state election officials after a series of irregularities in voter data: certain counties had improbably high numbers of absentee ballot requests, for example, many of which recipients failed to return in order to cast their votes. In one county, nearly half of all requested ballots were submitted by McCrae Dowless himself in what seems to have been a clear violation of election rules.
The election board’s investigation may remain incomplete, however, because of a surprise court ruling that terminated the board’s existence in the last week of December. A bipartisan group of state lawmakers had submitted a request to extend the life of the board so that it could complete its investigation into the Harris campaign, a request that was denied by a three-judge panel. As a result, the board was disbanded on Friday without having certified the election results.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper submitted a request on Friday to the Democrat and Republican party chairs to put together a bipartisan list of nominees for a temporary elections board, in order to complete the investigation. That request was denied by Republican Chair Robin Hayes. “The governor is following the law and the Republican chairman should, too,” said a representative for the governor’s office in a statement. “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. Empty chairs on the Board of Elections help no one.”
Harris, who has denied any knowledge of the alleged fraud, celebrated the court’s ruling and, though it had no bearing on the substance of the charges against his campaign, said that he hoped it would put an end to the questions surrounding the race and speed up his certification as the winner. In a televised interview earlier in December, the candidate admitted that he personally hired McCrae Dowless, “a good old boy that knew Bladen County politics,” after learning of his effectiveness on the campaign team of Congressman Robert Pittenger, to whom Harris lost the Republican primary in 2016.
Harris described a two-phase “absentee ballot program” that McCrae Dowless outlined for him during their early conversations. Phase one involved going door to door and asking potential voters to fill out absentee ballot request forms, which the people employed by the Harris campaign submitted to the elections board on behalf of voters. “Phase two was the absentee ballot part,” said Harris in the interview, acknowledging that McCrae Dowless “would have two people that would go and follow up on those absentee ballot requests once the ballot got there, and their job was basically to knock on the door, to follow up with those people, and offer their services to — if they needed any assistance with their ballot.”
While the legality surrounding the strategy even as it was described by Harris is hazy, multiple notarized affidavits released over the course of December were submitted by voters claiming that members of the Harris campaign were offering to fill out and return ballots themselves, a patently illegal practice. “I signed the absentee ballot envelope but left the ballot completely blank,” said one man who alleged to have handed over his ballot to McCrae Dowless himself. “I did not make any selections in any of the contests on the ballot.”
The interrupted investigation, which has so far produced 182,000 pages of records and resulted in over 100 interviews, has also uncovered possible collusion between McCrae Dowless and local elections officials. Cynthia Shaw, the former elections board director of Bladen County — McCrae Dowless’s home county and the main focus of the investigation — was scheduled to retire at the end of 2018, but resigned her post early following the announcement of the investigation. According to affidavits submitted by at least one county official, Jens Lutz, Shaw contacted McCrae Dowless after her staff uncovered several forged absentee ballots. Lutz, who resigned in December, also said that county staff members allowed McCrae Dowless to “take and copy unredacted absentee ballot request forms, which include social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, state ID numbers, and signatures,” as well as the voter’s race. This information, Lutz argued, could have been used by Harris’s team to track down the ballots once they were issued and profile recipients based on their likelihood to vote for him.
Having denied knowledge of any illegal activity, Harris said during the same interview that “if a crime has been committed, individuals need to be held accountable for that.” Nonetheless, he has insisted that he should be confirmed to his seat in Congress. Harris’s opponent, Democrat Dan McCready, withdrew his initial concession in early December after learning of the investigation and said that the Harris campaign had “attack[ed] our democracy.”
“I call on Mark Harris to tell us exactly what he knew and when he knew it,” he said in a filmed statement announcing his plan to contest the results.