The midterms mostly ended weeks ago, but one House seat in North Carolina still remains unsettled. In case you’ve missed the story, Republican Mark Harris won the seat in NC-09 by 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready, but apparent tampering with absentee ballots in two counties have thrown the outcome into serious question. Both political parties now agree more or less on the need for a new election, but the question is how that election gets conducted.
Republicans want a do-over from the primary after irregularities emerged from Harris’ win over incumbent Robert Pittenger. The legislature passed a bill requiring a complete do-over, but Gov. Roy Cooper — a Democrat — vetoed the bill shortly before Christmas. Cooper said his beef was over a campaign-finance provision in the bill, not the requirement for a primary:
Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill that would’ve required a new primary election in the 9th District Friday, saying it would make it harder to root out corruption in elections and campaigns.
The elections bill, House Bill 1029, aimed to restore the governor’s control of the state elections board, an action Cooper was pleased by, but simultaneously sought to limit public knowledge regarding campaign finance investigations.
Cooper said Monday that he would pass the bill if that condition was eliminated.
Rather than rewrite the bill, The Hill reports that the state legislature will attempt to override Cooper’s veto. If they do, the seat might remain open for several months. They might need to override the veto just to keep the state elections board in operation, which is under a court order to disband:
The General Assembly could now meet as early as this week, after the holidays, in an attempt to override Cooper’s veto, a likely prospect that could recast expectations for a new race. …
Gerry Cohen, former special counsel for the North Carolina General Assembly, said a race that involves only a rerun of the general election could happen in the spring, but new primaries could drag the process out out until August 2019, under timeframes that include a 45-day window for military and absentee voting. …
The legislation would also overhaul the current makeup of the NCSBE, which has been ruled unconstitutional but is operating under a court order that allows it to remain in its current form until Dec. 28.
In other words, this crisis has a lot of moving parts. The state board of elections has set a January 11th hearing date to review the evidence of tampering. If the state doesn’t resolve its legal status before that date, then there won’t be any hearing at all and no decision on how to proceed. It’s possible to rewrite the bill to strip out the campaign finance changes, but it’s also possible that Cooper wasn’t being serious about supporting a complete do-over in NC-09, too. The state legislature might consider an override the safer strategy, at least for its first attempt to deal with the situation.
And with the GOP holding a veto-proof majority, that might be all the strategy they need. The state GOP chair declared that the legislature would come back into session after Christmas to deliver the override:
“Cooper’s veto means North Carolina would have electoral chaos with no election board, no laws governing elections, and no ability to conduct said elections or hold elected officials to account for ethical lapses,” said North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes in a statement.
“This is why Governor Cooper’s veto can not and will not stand. He has disrupted the holiday and family time of legislators for cynical politics that have no chance of succeeding.”
The legislation also reverts the elections board back to a five-member board, consisting of three members of the governor’s party and two members of the opposing party.
Additionally, the bill splits the board into two entities: one that has jurisdiction over elections and the other over ethics enforcement.
They will have to work quickly. Democrats won enough seats in both chambers to eliminate the GOP’s supermajority in this session, so an override in its next session will likely be impossible. Republicans will still control the agenda in the state House and Senate, but can’t control the outcome on an override vote after January 1st.
If the override succeeds, keep an eye on Pittenger. He quietly withdrew from the campaign after getting beat in the primary, but he might want another shot at Harris with Leslie McCrae Dowless out of the way. Dowless is now the subject of a criminal investigation, and probably should have been even before Harris hired him for the 2018 campaign. NBC reported last week that North Carolina investigators wanted Dowless prosecuted after the 2016 campaign, when he worked for Todd Johnson:
North Carolina officials sought criminal charges after the 2016 election against the man now at the center of absentee ballot fraud allegations, but prosecutors didn’t indict him before the now disputed 2018 congressional race, according to documents released Wednesday.
The documents detail a two year investigation by the North Carolina State Board of Elections into Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. Authorities informed the 62-year-old convicted felon from rural Bladen County earlier this month that he is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation into irregularities in the Nov. 6 vote in the state’s 9th Congressional District.
In a January 2018 memo referring Dowless and others for criminal charges, state elections investigators detailed interviews in which people who had worked for Dowless in the 2016 election cycle described collecting absentee ballots from voters. Because of the potential for mischief, it is against North Carolina law for anyone other than a voter or immediate relative to handle someone’s absentee ballot before it is sealed and mailed.
Investigators also alleged Dowless attempted to interfere with their investigation by calling witnesses and warning them before they could be interviewed.
Dowless might end up with those headaches all over again in addition to those he’s picked up in this election cycle. The GOP would like to get rid of its own headache in Harris, who has almost no chance now of competing well in the district after this scandal. The override might be their best chance of ensuring they can run someone who at least has a chance to win in a general election.