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North Carolina Is Getting A Do-Over Election

After months of investigations and media reports into possible absentee-ballot fraud, we finally have a decision in the disputed election in the North Carolina 9th Congressional District: There will be a new election. This will be the first time that a congressional election has been redone since 1975.

On Thursday, the North Carolina State Board of Elections voted 5-0 to hold a do-over election after hearing evidence that an illegal absentee-ballot scheme cast doubt on the outcome of the original election — which Republican Mark Harris initially appeared to have won by just 905 votes.

Under current law, the 9th District will have to host both a new primary and a new general election.1 It’s still unknown when the new election will be held, but the campaign could take as long as five months from start to finish.2 In one possible timeline, a primary would be held over the summer, a potential runoff would be scheduled for September and the general election would be in November.

Who might run in a new election? On the GOP side, it was previously assumed that Harris would run again, but given that he said during the hearing that he was still suffering the effects of serious recent health problems, that now seems less certain. Multiple other Republicans are already reportedly eyeing a campaign, and Harris’s opponent in last year’s race, Democrat Dan McCready, may be gearing up to run again, too.

At this stage, it’s hard to know how the new election will play out. But what we do know is that the North Carolina 9th District is 14 points more Republican-leaning than the country as a whole.3 However, the district’s previous election was one of the closest races of 2018, and the Cook Political Report has already rated the new election a “Toss Up.” Furthermore, in 2017 and 2018, oddly timed special elections for federal office saw Democrats overperform the partisan leans of their district by an average of 16 points (although that’s certainly subject to change in 2019). McCready, an ex-Marine who raised $6.7 million last cycle, also proved to be a strong Democratic candidate; if he is the Democratic nominee again in the new election, as seems likely, the race could once again be close. And if Harris is the Republican nominee, Democrats might even be favored in the race. Local Republicans reportedly believe that Harris’s ties to the illegal absentee-ballot operation have made him virtually unelectable, and we know from countless previous elections that scandals like this one drag down candidates who are implicated in them.

The state board of elections’ vote came at the end of a longdelayed evidentiary hearing that started Monday and wrapped up on Thursday. Right off the bat, the board said that they had evidence that “a coordinated, unlawful, and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme operated during the 2018 general election.” The hearing went on to provide evidence that backed up earlier media reports that McCrae Dowless, a campaign consultant for Harris, coordinated an illegal absentee-ballot scheme centered on Bladen County, on the eastern end of the district. State investigators also found that the Bladen County elections office was not physically secure and that preliminary results from Bladen County may have gotten into the wrong hands.

On Wednesday afternoon, Harris’s son John Harris testified that he had told his father that he believed Dowless’s methods were illegal after his father first met with Dowless. This contradicted public statements that the elder Harris made previously, in which he told multiple media outlets that no one had raised any red flags about Dowless. And finally, on Thursday, Harris himself took the stand, but he didn’t testify for long. He said that a recent illness had left him confused and prone to memory loss, and that he now believed, given everything he had heard at the hearing, that a new election was warranted.

It was stark retreat from what had been the Republican position as recently as Tuesday, when the executive director of the state party insisted that the number of ballots allegedly tampered with didn’t justify calling a new election. Harris’s turnaround was a remarkable admission of the weight of the evidence against Dowless — as well as how untenable Harris’s position had become politically.



From ABC News:


Footnotes

  1. Until recently, North Carolina law only provided for a new general election in these circumstances, but the Republican legislature passed a law in December that required a primary as well.

  2. Federal law requires 45 days of absentee voting, and North Carolina law requires a runoff if no candidate receives at least 30 percent of the vote in the primary.

  3. Based on FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric, where 2016 presidential election results are weighted 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results are weighted 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature are weighted 25 percent.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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