• Possible absentee 'irregularities' examined in 9th Congressional District race

    By: Joe Bruno , DaShawn Brown , Liz Foster

    Updated:

    RALEIGH, N.C. - Republican Mark Harris is in Washington preparing to take office, but his campaign is demanding to know what wrongdoing the state is investigating while refusing to officially declare him the winner.

    North Carolina's elections board delayed finalizing the results Tuesday of a close U.S. House race, as officials appear to be scrutinizing potential wrongdoing within the 9th Congressional District.

    The official swearing into office is on Jan. 3.

    The board is investigating potential absentee ballot "irregularities" in the 9th Congressional District.

    Elections board spokesman Patrick Gannon confirmed probe details Wednesday, the day after the board voted to push back a decision on the 9th District until at least Friday.

    Gannon separately said a board investigator took absentee ballot request forms and ballot envelopes from Bladen County, partially in the district. Bladen elections board Chairman Bobby Ludlum said the investigator took "several" mail-in ballot envelopes right after Election Day.

    Board members voted unanimously to certify the final tallies in nearly all of the elections held earlier this month but didn't sign off on the 9th District, as well as a handful of other races subject to protests or recounts.

    “It’s a pretty surprising decision,” said Jeff Hauser, N.C. GOP. “They need to be transparent about why they’re refusing to certify (House District 9.)”

    Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes out of nearly 283,000 votes cast in all or parts of eight south-central counties encompassing the 9th. The GOP has held the district since 1963.

    Member Joshua Malcolm of Robeson County lives in the 9th District and made the motion to delay race certification until at least Friday, when the board is to reconvene. Malcolm's motion cited a state law that reads the board can "take any other action necessary to assure that an election is determined without taint of fraud or corruption and without irregularities that may have changed the result of an election."

    Harris’ attorney sent a letter to the chairman of the State Board of Elections Tuesday that reads in part; “as the representative-elect for the 9th District, he does have a right to know whether these ‘activities’ involved the qualifying or disqualifying of votes in the district, how many votes or potential votes are involved and whether the number of votes involved would actually change the result of the election.”

    [ALSO READ: Harris, McCready clash for highly competitive House district]

    McCready's campaign didn't respond to texts Tuesday seeking comment on the board's decision.

    “I’m very happy that the state board of elections is taking these steps because the integrity of our elections is of paramount importance,” said Jane Whitley, chair of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party. “It’s so important that our voters feel that their votes are taken seriously."

    Before board members went behind closed doors, Malcolm said he was concerned about "unfortunate activities that have been happening down in my part of the state, and I am not going to turn a blind eye to what took place to the best of my understanding." State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said late Tuesday it's his understanding the allegations are focused in Bladen County, which adjoins Robeson and is partially in the 9th, but didn't know the reason.

    A spokesperson for the elections board told Channel 9 the state is reviewing absentee ballots in Bladen County but hasn’t said how many may be impacted.

    Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, said Monday the state board wouldn't do something this big for no reason.

    “We just don’t know what this is right now, but there is something substantial enough to warrant the state board to say, ‘We need to pause and investigate this,’” Bitzer said. “This is pretty significant. If we have to go back and re-do this particular election, I would be hesitant to say what kind of situation we'll all find ourselves in, in the 9th Congressional District.”

    The board has the authority to order a new election. It will meet by teleconference on Friday at 10 a.m.

    There is no timeline for when this must be investigated by, but new members are sworn in on Jan. 3.

    In December 2016, the state board agreed to send to federal prosecutors what its staff had uncovered while scrutinizing the November 2016 election and absentee ballots in Bladen County. The board didn't disclose at the time what it had found.

    Voting machine failures and allegations of voter fraud and suppression have been front and center during this year's elections nationwide. North Carolina voters this month also approved a constitutional amendment mandating photo identification to vote in person.

    On Wednesday, the Harris campaign told Channel 9, "We were surprised by yesterday's developments at the State Board of Elections, but our legal team is fully engaged. We trust the process. This morning, we sent the letter below to the SBOE asking for clarity. We continue to prepare in DC to serve the constituents of the 9th District!"

    The McCready conceded the race the day after Election Day, when unofficial totals had Harris ahead by less than 1,900 votes. He didn't change his mind later this month when additional absentee and provisional ballots counted cut the margin in half.

    Harris, a Southern Baptist minister from Charlotte, appears in line to succeed GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger, who lost to Harris in the Republican primary in May. Democrats nationwide have won close to 40 additional seats while taking back control of the House in January. If Harris prevails, Republicans will continue to hold 10 of the 13 seats within the North Carolina delegation.

    Woodhouse said in an interview it is clear Harris won the race and unless the board soon certifies the results, he expects the matter will end up in court. Congressional terms begin Jan. 3. The board does have authority to order new elections in some circumstances if five of the nine members agree.

    (The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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