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House Democrats Could Refuse to Seat North Carolina Republican

Mark Harris speaks to the media during a news conference in Matthews, N.C. (Chuck Burton / AP)

On election night, the race appeared settled. Republican Mark Harris eked out a 905-vote victory over Democrat Dan McCready to be the next representative of North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. Then, the North Carolina Board of Elections declined to certify the results, citing irregularities with absentee ballots. Specifically, there was an unusually high rate of such ballots that were unreturned in two counties that, according to an analysis from The Charlotte News and Observer, were “disproportionately associated with minority voters.”

State election officials are now investigating whether a political operative Harris had hired illegally collected ballots so they would not be returned.

Even if Harris is certified by North Carolina, Democrats could decline to seat him when they become the majority in the House in January, according to current Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

“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,” Hoyer told reporters. He plans to discuss the issue with Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who will be chair of the Committee on House Administration. That committee can independently investigate the election, make decisions on its validity and even call a new election.

The panel, then called the Committee on House Oversight, completed an independent investigation into a similarly close 1996 race between then-Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Calif., and his challenger, Democrat Loretta Sanchez. Dornan claimed the election was stolen because of illegal voting, though Sanchez eventually won.

The investigation is centered on Leslie McCrae Dowless, a longtime North Carolina political operative, who, as The New York Times reports, is known for get-out-the-vote campaigns based on absentee ballots. He was previously convicted of felony perjury and insurance fraud.

Election officials are not only concerned about the unreturned ballots, but also about the possibility there was fraud involving absentee ballot signatures; North Carolina requires two witnesses for each ballot. Local news station WSOC found evidence of “a targeted effort to illegally pick up ballots, in which even the person picking them up had no idea whether those ballots were even delivered to the elections board. Consistently, Channel 9 found the same people signing as witnesses for the people voting, which is very rare.”

The Times points out that “it is not clear whether the ballots in question would change the result of the election,” though it is mathematically possible the race could swing toward McCready: “While the 679 absentee votes Mr. Harris received in Bladen and Robeson Counties are not enough on their own, there may have been as many as 3,400 absentee ballots requested but not returned in those counties.” In addition, the Board of Elections itself was supposed to be dissolved, the Times explains, as a “result of a court ruling that the board’s composition improperly limited Governor [Roy] Cooper’s power. Republican leaders asked the court for an extension while the Ninth District investigation plays out, and the judges granted one until Dec. 12.”

Despite this ruling, the next evidentiary hearing for the House race is scheduled for Dec. 21. The new Democratic-controlled house will be sworn in Jan. 3.

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