Election fraud accusations rock a House election in North Carolina that drags on a month after midterms

Key Points
  • North Carolina still has not certified the North Carolina 9th District election result amid accusations of election fraud.
  • Republican pastor Mark Harris holds a narrow lead of about 900 votes over Democratic Marine veteran Dan McCready. But the state is investigating irregularities in absentee ballots, mostly in one of the district's counties.
  • McCready says he is withdrawing his concession, claiming Harris bankrolled "criminal activity."
Republican NC-9th District Congressional candidate Mark Harris answers questions at a news conference at the Matthews Town Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, in Matthews, N.C.
David T. Foster III | Charlotte Observer | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

A key U.S. House race in North Carolina where the Republican candidate narrowly leads has now dragged on for a month after Election Day amid concerns about possible election fraud.

The state's Board of Elections declined to certify GOP pastor Mark Harris' unofficial victory over Democratic Marine veteran Dan McCready in North Carolina's 9th District last week as absentee ballot irregularities emerged. Officials in the state now have to assess whether misconduct occurred, as calls grow to refuse to seat Harris in January or even hold a new election.

As tensions mounted in the district, McCready announced during a television interview that he would throw his hat back into the ring.

"As of today, I am withdrawing my concession to Mark Harris," said McCready, who claimed his opponent had been discovered bankrolling "criminal activity."

"Furthermore, I call on Mark Harris to tell the American people exactly what he knew and when he knew it."

McCready tweet

The Harris campaign did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment on McCready's announcement. The McCready campaign also did not respond to a request for comment.

The elections board has to hold an evidentiary hearing by Dec. 21, and can order a new election if it determines that irregularities marred the election's result or cast doubts on its fairness. Harris currently holds a 905-vote lead, and it is unclear whether the possible fraud went far enough to swing the race in the Republican's favor.

If the result changes, it would flip another GOP-held seat to Democratic control. Democrats carried at least 40 Republican districts in last month's midterm elections on their way to winning a House majority.

The votes in question largely stem from Bladen County, where Harris won 61 percent of the mail-in vote despite Republicans requesting only 19 percent of absentee ballots in the county, according to The Washington Post. Bladen had an absentee ballot request rate of 7.5 percent of registered voters, compared with about 3 percent in most counties, The New York Times reported.

Reports have also pointed to irregularities in this year's Republican primary, when Harris narrowly beat Rep. Robert Pittenger. The representative privately blamed the "ballot stuffers in Bladen" after he lost in May, the Post reported Thursday. Pittenger's campaign warned the executive director of the state GOP and a regional director for House Republicans' campaign arm, but officials "did little to scrutinize the results," according to the newspaper.

At the center of the possible irregularities sits McCrae Dowless, an electioneer and elected vice chairman of the Bladen Soil and Water Conservation. Two women told Charlotte TV station WSOC that Dowless paid them to pick up voters' absentee ballots.

The outlet also cites affidavits in which voters claim a person picked up their absentee ballots. In one case, a voter said her ballot was uncompleted when it was taken.

It is unclear how closely linked Dowless is to the Harris campaign, or exactly what effect his alleged conduct had on the race. CNBC could not immediately reach Dowless through the Bladen Soil and Water Conservation. The Charlotte Observer reported that Dowless had denied any wrongdoing.

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As officials prepare to assess the evidence of fraud, calls for a new election have started. The Charlotte Observer pushed for a new contest. The newspaper's editorial board wrote:

There may be no way, however, to know how widespread the fraud was, or whether it involved enough ballots to potentially change the outcome of the election — a 905-vote victory for Republican Mark Harris over Democrat Dan McCready. But we do know enough. Unless new evidence somehow clears the clouds hanging over this election, the Board of Elections should toss out the 9th District results.

On Thursday, North Carolina Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse told NBC News that he would back a new election if the elections board "can show a substantial likelihood it could have changed the race." He also told CNN that he threw up after watching coverage of the potential fraud, as it "has shaken us to the core."

Sciutto tweet

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat and favorite to become speaker in January, stopped short of pushing for a new election Thursday. She told reporters that the House could take that "extraordinary step" if it proves impossible to determine the winner.

The House "retains the right to decide who is seated," Pelosi noted. On Tuesday, incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters that his party may not seat Harris until "substantial" questions about election integrity get resolved.

Harris has questioned whether fraud could have affected enough votes to swing the race, and called for the state elections board to certify the result.

When the board voted last week to delay certifying the result, McCready applauded the decision. He said it "takes a strong step towards ensuring that the people of the Ninth District have the answers they deserve and any bad actors are held accountable."

McCready initially conceded the day after the Nov. 6 election.

While the irregularities in the 9th District race have drawn national headlines, state Republican lawmakers on Thursday cast the Bladen County irregularities as a years long problem. Multiple GOP state senators urged Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to investigate what they called issues in the county that go back several election cycles, including during Cooper's election in 2016.

In a statement, Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said the governor thinks the state's residents "should have confidence in the integrity of elections and allegations of fraud and tampering must be investigated."

"There are multiple ongoing criminal investigations and legislators should allow investigators and prosecutors to follow the facts and take appropriate action," Porter said.

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