Absentee ballots at root of tangled House race
‘Harvesting’ illegal in North Carolina
A North Carolina congressional district remains the last race still up for grabs this year, with the election result tangled in fraud allegations and the outcome potentially resting in the hands of the incoming House Democratic majority.
The state board of elections has declined to certify the tally in the state’s 9th Congressional District after the initial count showed Republican Mark Harris defeating Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes out of more than 280,000 cast.
What’s next is unclear, but a familiar culprit is at the center of the dispute: absentee ballots.
The board collected at least six sworn statements from voters who said people came to their homes and urged them to hand over their absentee ballots.
Democrats are crying foul over what they call illegal ballot-harvesting, though they balked at similar complaints from Republicans in California, where a number of races flipped after eleventh-hour floods of absentee ballots.
There was also an unusually large percentage of absentee ballots from minority voters — a reliable Democratic bloc — that were not turned in at the polls in North Carolina.
More than 40 percent of ballots requested by black voters and more than 60 percent of ballots requests by American Indian voters were not returned. By comparison, just 17 percent of ballots sent to white voters did not make it back to election officials, according to The News & Observer in Raleigh.
Several investigations are underway. A district attorney probe in Bladen City initially centered on the 2016 cycle but was expanded to include the 2018 election.
“Reports indicate a direct connection between the Harris campaign and those committing election fraud and suggest a calculated effort to illegally undermine our democracy,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Enrique Gutierrez. “If the North Carolina Republican Party believes in the integrity of our elections, they won’t stand in the way of an investigation.”
In California, where third-party collection of absentee ballots is legal, the massive canvassing operation is typically spearheaded by labor unions.
Republicans were stunned when races they thought they had won suddenly turned upside down.
“California just defies logic to me,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said at a recent event hosted by The Washington Post. “We were only down 26 seats the night of the election, and three weeks later, we lost basically every California contested race.”
Republicans are on the opposite side of the issue in North Carolina, though national Republican leaders are loath to defend the Harris campaign.
“It is laughable that with a straight face Democrats are actually calling one race that they lose voter fraud but the other one in California just plain ballot harvesting,” said Shawn Steel, the National Republican Committeeman from California.
He said the types of investigations underway in North Carolina should be opened in California, where the millions of absentee ballots flipped scores of Republican seats to Democrat this year.
“There’s a fine line to how much you help a voter vote,” said Mr. Steel. “There’s a huge opportunity for tremendous mischief.”
While millions voted with absentee ballots in California, out of 2.3 million ballots cast in North Carolina, only about 100,000 were mail-in ballots.
There are several scenarios for ultimately picking the next U.S. House representative for the 9th District:
The state election board could certify the results.
The board could call for a special election, replaying the last contest with Mr. Harris, Mr. McCready and Libertarian Jeff Scott back on the ballot.
The U.S. House, which will be under Democratic control as of Jan. 3, could decide whom to seat.
The House could call for a special election, starting the process from scratch with new primaries and potentially new candidates.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who will be House majority leader next year, said Tuesday that Mr. Harris likely will not be seated until the mess is cleared up.
“If there is what appears to be a very substantial question on the integrity of the election, clearly we would oppose Mr. Harris’ being seated until that is resolved,” he said.
Mr. Hoyer said he planned to discuss it with Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat expected to head the House Administration Committee, which has the power to investigate the election and call for a new one.
The moves by the state’s election board came under fire from Mr. Harris and the North Carolina Republican Party.
Mr. Harris said he welcomed an investigation “as long as it is fair and focuses on all political parties.”
“But to date, there is absolutely no public evidence that there are enough ballots in question to affect the outcome of this race. Accordingly, the Board should act immediately to certify the race while continuing to conduct their investigation. Anything else is a disservice to the people of the Ninth District,” he said in a statement.
Democrats countered that the election outcome did not have to be in doubt for voter fraud to invalidate the results.
Adding to the mess, the board’s Democratic chairman, Andy Penry, resigned last week after his tweets criticizing President Trump came to light.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, elevated Vice Chairman Joshua Malcolm, also a Democrat, to lead the board.
Gerry F. Cohen, former special counsel to the North Carolina General Assembly who drafted state election laws, said the state has a history of absentee voter fraud dating back to sheriff races in the 1940s.
“But this takes the cake. This is at a level that is unbelievable,” he said.
Like most other states, North Carolina does not allow third-party collection of absentee ballots. Because of its murky election past, its laws are strict on the matter. College students are even prohibited from having a roommate drop their absentee ballots into the mail.
“That’s how strict our law is, of course that’s absurd,” said Mr. Cohen. “But taking unmarked ballots and filling them out. That is different than ballot harvesting — it’s ballot theft.”
David Sherfinski contributed to this report.