Bill would let fraud investigation continue, potentially a new election for 9th District

Investigators would study decades of voter fraud allegations statewide in new legislation expected to be on the House and Senate chamber floors Wednesday

North Carolina 9th district Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris, with his wife Beth, claims victory in his congressional race in Monroe, N.C., Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

RALEIGH — On Tuesday, leadership in the N.C. legislature announced a new bill that restores the State Board of Elections to its original 2016 composition and could allow for a new election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, pending the outcome of a fraud investigation into handling of absentee ballots in that race. The bill is expected to move through both chambers’ committee process and be on the chamber floors on Wednesday.

Deadlines, fraud allegations and court orders are driving the fast timeline but also bringing lawmakers and the governor’s office to the table to work out the details. A panel of judges ruled in October that the current nine-member elections and ethics board was unconstitutional because the process of making appointments prevented Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper from controlling an executive agency. Republican lawmakers say the proposed new measure is what the governor requested and leaves the current board in place until after the negotiations.

“Drastically restructuring the board during this investigation would not be productive,” said Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) in a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

It also delays implementation of the new voter ID constitutional amendment until Sept. 1, 2019

“We have engaged in good faith negotiations with the governor’s office for several weeks,” said Lewis. “Many of the things he asked for are in this bill. I wish he were with us here today and it was a done deal, but this is the very best we could do.”

In addition to returning the structure of the State Board of Elections and the State Ethics Commission to their original designs, the bill also allows the current board, though ruled unconstitutional, to continue investigating allegations of absentee ballot fraud in the state’s 9th Congressional District, even back to the race’s primaries.

It also calls for an investigation of alleged “ballot harvesting” statewide, going back for five election cycles. The term “ballot harvesting” refers to the illegal process of collecting absentee ballots on behalf of voters, without being one of their family members. Allegations have surfaced from people in Bladen County that they were paid to go door to door and collect unsealed absentee ballots.

“The bill actually expands the investigation into illegal absentee ballot harvesting by directing the state board to look at absentee balloting statewide for the past five election cycles,” said Sen. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg). “We still believe that the governor should allow a bipartisan task force to conduct this broader investigation given that all indications are that this alleged fraud has taken place for perhaps a decade and implicates both parties. But attempting to put into place a non-partisan investigation without the governor’s cooperation would be counter-productive.”

“Nevertheless, if fraud has been committed previously or in different locations and that is overlooked because the investigating authority is as partisan as the governor has sought, then the governor will have to answer to that,” he added.

Announcement of the new bill came the same day that state Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes called for a new election in the 9th District, citing one of the affidavits submitted by the N.C. Democratic Party.

In the affidavit, Bladen County precinct worker Agnes Willis alleges that the county’s early-vote tallies were printed at Bladen’s in-person early voting site the Saturday before Election Day and were reviewed by people who are not election judges. That information conceivably could help political campaigns with Election Day get-out-the-vote strategies.

Hayes said that alone would be grounds alone for a new election in an unsettled congressional race in southeastern North Carolina.

In November, as the fraud allegations were becoming public, the current State Board of Elections was winding down, with the knowledge that the panel of state judges directed it to be redesigned by noon Wednesday, Dec. 12.

Now, the elections board’s chairman, Democrat Joshua Malcolm, asked those same judges for more time to investigate the fraud allegations.

In a letter to state judges on Monday, Malcolm wrote that some witnesses subpoenaed in the case need more time to gather documentation. The board already planned an evidentiary hearing on the district race on or before Dec. 21 to determine whether a new congressional district election is necessary.

The lawmaker’s bill echoes a request for more time for the current board to investigate, setting a new deadline in January of 2019.

The moving parts to the story gain more urgency as a new session of Congress is slated to begin Jan. 3 under Democrat leadership. With the still-uncertified 9th District results showing Republican Mark Harris leading Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, Harris has already attended freshman orientation to represent the 9th District.

McCready withdrew his concession in the race last week, and Harris said he would support a new election if it’s proven that fraud changed the outcome of the election.

If the state does not chart a course, the U.S. House could demand a new election in the 9th District. Last week, incoming-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hinted that the House may refuse to seat Harris in January.

“The House still retains the right to decide who is seated,” Pelosi said to reporters on Friday. “Any member-elect can object to the seating, the swearing-in to another member-elect. So, we’ll see how that goes.”

If the board determines that a new election is needed, according to Lewis, state law requires that it be a complete do-over including a new filing period, new primaries and a new general election. If that is the case, the staff of outgoing Congressman Robert Pittenger (NC-09) would remain in place to assist constituents.