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Moment Of Truth In 9th Congressional District Saga

Rusty Jacobs

A moment of reckoning has arrived for the newly appointed state elections board. The five-member panel begins an evidentiary hearing Monday into alleged vote tampering in North Carolina's 9th congressional district.

Ask a Democrat what should happen and the answer is clear: the board should find the 2018 9th district race was so tainted by improprieties that a new contest must be held.

Ask a Republican the same question and you get a very different answer.

"We expect the result to be Mark Harris being certified because there is simply not going to be evidence or anything to indicate anything other than he won this election," said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party.

File photo of NC GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse.
Credit Adhiti Bandlamudi / WUNC

Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes.

But the previous elections board declined to certify the results amid allegations that Harris campaign operative McCrae Dowless oversaw an operation aimed at mishandling unsuspecting voters' absentee ballotsm more than 1,700 of them in Bladen and Robeson counties.

The McCready campaign cites affidavits and county elections board records in its claims that the 9th district race is so tainted the elections board must call for a new election.

Even Woodhouse said a new election was warranted back in December after evidence collected by the elections board showed Bladen County officials violated state law by tabulating and releasing early voting data before they were allowed to do so.

That was then, this is now.

"We think this is, at end of day, been much ado about nothing and attempt to sully Mr. Harris's good name," said Woodhouse, in a telephone interview. "We just do not believe that there is any significant evidence of anything."

"The state Republican Party has been on all sides of this issue," said Wayne Goodwin, who chairs the North Carolina Democratic Party.

"They were against having a hearing, they were for having a hearing, then they were against proceeding to certification, they were for certification, any other combination of positions that could be taken they have taken," Goodwin added.

Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC
North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin during a December 2018 press conference regarding the disputed 9th district race.

Goodwin said it should be evident to any casual observer there are significant questions about the 9th district race.

"And I believe that when we hear all the facts, no matter where they fall, I don't think that will change what a rational, reasonable person would believe, and that is the election was tainted and the process was unfair," he said.

For Democrats, it's about the taint of wrongdoing and the cloud it casts over the election results.

For Republicans, it's about the precise number of votes affected and whether the outcome would be reversed.

State law says the board can call for new elections in either event.

But the law is less clear on just how much evidence the board needs to make that call.

"I don't know if that's, you know, preponderance of the evidence, whether it's clear and convincing evidence, whether it's evidence beyond a reasonable doubt," said Attorney David Freedman, who represents Mark Harris.

"That's going to be their determination," Freedman added, referring to the elections board.

Freedman and Harris's legal team argue that even in the face of significant evidence of irregularities, calling for a new election is discretionary, not mandatory, and would be an extraordinary remedy.

Indeed, the board would need a 4-to-1 super-majority vote to call for a new election. Assuming it's a party-line decision, that would require one of the board's two Republicans to join the three Democrats.

The board could end up in a kind of deadlock, where the three Democrats refuse to certify Harris's victory but the board falls short of the 4-1 decision needed to call for a new election.

That could leave North Carolina stuck without a 9th district representative for awhile.

Even if the board certifies Harris's victory, that might not be the last word. The Democratic leadership in the U.S. House has indicated they might not seat Mark Harris pending their own investigation.

Harris attorney David Freedman said he thinks that would be a very dangerous place to go.

"Whichever party is in the majority wants to start exercising that discretion then that's going to cast pall over all future elections and not give the state the proper due," Freedman said.

Of course, under state law, any decision by the elections board may be appealed in state court. Meaning this hearing probably won't be the last chapter in the 9th district saga.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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