Speedy Deadline For Candidates In NC-09 Election

Mar 5, 2019

The election timetable for North Carolina's 9th Congressional District special election.
Credit N.C. State Board of Elections

Next week marks the start of a new round of elections in the nation's last unresolved congressional race after November's results were thrown out because of concerns about ballot tampering and state officials called for a do-over.

North Carolina's elections board said Monday that 9th Congressional District candidates must file between March 11 and March 15 to be included in May 14 party primaries.

If all the political parties clearly pick their candidates in May, then the general election will be Sept. 10.

However, if a candidate fails to win more than 30 percent of the party vote in May, a second primary could be held Sept. 10 and the general election would be delayed.

The extended timetable allows time for absentee ballots to be requested and mailed back, including those of military members and their families who may be stationed abroad but who live in the 9th District near the Army's Fort Bragg, elections board chairman Robert Cordle said.

"I'm just sorry it takes so long to have these elections, because everybody would like to get it over with as soon as we can," he said.

The new election resulted after testimony that a political operative working for Republican candidate Mark Harris in rural Bladen County collected mail-in ballots, making votes vulnerable to being changed or discarded.

Harris said he won't run again. Dan McCready, the Democrat who appeared to be the loser November's election, has said he will try again to win in a district that has been in GOP hands since 1963. Donald Trump won it by 12 percentage points in 2016.

"For right now he would definitely have to be looked at as the front-runner," Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer said.

Harris' departure means opportunity for other Republicans. Harris said he's backing Stony Rushing, a Union County commissioner. State Sen. Dan Bishop is also believed to be sizing up the landscape. He is the architect and sponsor of the North Carolina law restricting LGBT rights that led to a boycott against North Carolina. Former state senator Tommy Tucker also is considering a bid.

Activists from both parties expect lots of campaign money will flow into the off-year race as it gets heightened national attention. The district includes part of Charlotte and stretches through several rural counties along the South Carolina line. Its location close to Fort Bragg is expected to make McCready, an Iraq War veteran, an attractive candidate.

The operative whom Harris hired ahead of his 2018 Republican primary, Leslie McCrae Dowless, was charged last week with seven low-level felonies, including ballot possession and obstruction of justice. The charges are connected to Dowless' work for Harris in the 2018 Republican primary; to work for 9th District congressional candidate Todd Johnson in the 2016 primary; and to other work Dowless did in the 2016 general election.

Prosecutors are still investigating evidence of ballot tampering by Dowless and others during the November election.

Harris has not been charged with a crime and has denied knowledge of any illegal practices by those involved with his campaign. But he too could come under scrutiny: He admitted in last month's board meeting to writing personal checks to Dowless in 2017, a potential violation if the payments weren't reported.

The North Carolina scandal represents a rare case of a federal election nullified and redone because of fraud.

Republican William Pirce of Rhode Island appeared to have won a U.S. House seat in November 1884, but the House declared the seat vacant in 1887 after evidence of fraud raised doubts about whether Pirce won a majority of votes, noted University of Minnesota research fellow Eric Ostermeier.

The House elections committee also voided the 1806 victory of John Culpepper in a North Carolina congressional district, Ostermeier said. The Federalist had been in Congress for nearly a year when the committee found irregularities in three of the district's five counties and concluded, "It is most proper to give the citizens of that district an opportunity to have another election."