Get ready, Charlotte: We’re headed for a special election.
In an exceedingly rare turn of events, the candidate who took the most votes in the 9th Congressional District election will not be seated in the U.S. House.
The decision came after months of investigation into election fraud that roiled North Carolina’s political world and put our part of the state on the national map — in a very bad way.
Here’s the short version: Republican Mark Harris, former senior pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church, appeared to win a narrow victory in November’s election.
But soon, information began leaking out that a Bladen County operative working for his campaign may have illegally collected absentee ballots — juicing the results in Harris’s favor.
For several months, Harris pushed to be seated in Congress. But after four days of grueling and dramatic testimony in Raleigh last week, Harris decided to call for a new election himself.
Here’s what you need to know about what happened and what comes next.
How did we get to this point?
After one of the most hotly contested U.S. House races in the country, Harris appeared to defeat Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes for the 9th Congressional District. That’s out of just under 283,000 total votes cast.
This district stretches from south Charlotte all the way out to Fayetteville and had previously been held since 2012 by Robert Pittenger.
Harris got ready to move to Washington and be seated in Congress, and McCready graciously conceded defeat.
That is, until the official State Board of Elections meeting to certify the results of the election in late November. Usually this is just a formality. But this time, it wasn’t.
Citing “unfortunate activities,” the State Board of Elections vice chairman put forward a motion to delay certification of the race in order to investigate.
Quickly, information began to trickle out in the media about exactly what transpired. It all centers around Bladen County and absentee-by-mail ballots.
What is absentee-by-mail voting?
The absentee-by-mail voting system allow people to request a ballot to be mailed to their home to be filled out and mailed back in. This is an especially good option for some disabled people, college students, and members of the military.
You’re supposed to have witnesses sign attesting to the fact that you filled the ballot out under your own volition.
Absentee-by-mail voting is opposed to in-person absentee voting, which is the technical term for early voting.
What happened with absentee by mail ballots in this case?
The term for what was alleged in the 9th Congressional District is called “ballot harvesting.”
The first signs came from irregularities in the numbers.
Bladen County, a small, rural county in eastern North Carolina, had an unusually high percentage of voters request absentee-by-mail ballots.
Then, based on that number, there were on an unusually small percentage of them that actually turned them in.
After the State Board of Elections put the race on ice, reporters descended on Bladen County to interview people and try to figure out what happened.
What emerged in these interviews and affidavits submitted to the State Board of Elections is a classic ballot harvesting scheme.
The allegations centered around a guy named McCrae Dowless, a long-time Bladen County political operative who’s worked for Democrats and Republicans. For the 2018 election, he was on Mark Harris’s payroll purportedly to help scare up absentee votes.
It’s legal to encourage people to request an absentee by mail ballot and even to help them do so. It’s also legal to help people fill out absentee ballots.
But what news reports and affidavits showed was that Dowless and his team also paid people to collect completed or partially completed absentee ballots and bring them to Dowless, rather than sending them in directly as you’re supposed to. This would allow Dowless to fill in votes or destroy ballots that weren’t for his preferred candidates.
WSOCTV reporter Joe Bruno would ultimately win a Polk Award, one of journalism’s top national honors, for his reporting on the issue.
What happened at the State Board of Elections last week?
After months of investigations and some hiccups, the State Board of Elections finally conducted a formal hearing to examine evidence collected by state investigators last week.
This hearing was just to determine whether to certify the election results or order a new election. The State Board of Elections is empowered by law to throw out an election “to assure that an election is determined without taint of fraud or corruption and without irregularities that may have changed the result of an election.”
At the beginning of the four-day hearing, state investigators called a woman named Lisa Britt, Dowless’s former stepdaughter and an operative on his payroll. She testified to a lot of the evidence that had been put out in news reports. She testified that she had collected unsealed ballots, filled in votes for some races left blank, and signed her name and her mother’s name as a witness on ballots she hadn’t actually witnessed being signed.
Dowless declined to testify.
But the more dramatic testimony came later.
The State Board of Elections subpoena Harris’s son, a federal prosecutor, to testify. The son said that he had warned Harris not to hire Dowless because of suspicions of shady behavior.
What did Mark Harris say about all this?
Harris has consistently maintained that he thought Dowless was using legal methods to encourage absentee-by-mail voting. Harris had only lost a primary race in 2016 against Pittenger by a few hundred votes, and he was convinced that he could scare up that many extra votes in the rural part of the district through a get-out-the-vote effort.
Several other people testified to the State Board of Elections that Harris was perhaps too trusting, but did not implicate him.
And then on Thursday, it was Harris’s turn to take the witness stand. He began testifying, describing his meetings with Dowless and insisting that he was told everything was on the up-and-up.
In the early afternoon, Harris’s attorneys abruptly called for a recess. When it was over, Harris said he was no longer up for testifying — citing health issues, including a recent hospitalization for sepsis and multiple strokes.
He also called for a new election.
The State Board of Elections quickly granted that request, voting unanimously to order a new election.
Does this mean Mark Harris won’t be a Congressman?
Probably, but not necessarily.
Under state law, the 9th Congressional District race now goes to a special election, which will likely begin soon. A primary could be held in May, with a general election in October.
Harris is legally able to join the Republican primary and run again. WBT reported that Harris texted them saying he would recuperate and recover, assess his health, and then decide whether to run again.
What does this new election mean for Charlotte?
Politicians across Charlotte and Union County are now gearing up for a new campaign season.
The last time there was an open seat in the 9th Congressional District, back in 2012, there were 11 candidates just in the Republican primary.
Robert Pittenger, at the time a former state Senator, ultimately defeated former Mecklenburg County Sheriff Jim Pendergraph in a runoff primary. Pittenger then handily defeated future Charlotte mayor Jennifer Roberts in the general election.
In 2019, there could be just as many Republicans entering the race. Frontrunners include former Charlotte City Councilman Kenny Smith, Union County GOP leader Dan Barry, and former Mecklenburg County commissioner Matthew Ridenhour.
McCready has continued to campaign and raise money during all of these investigations and hearings, and he is almost certainly going to be re-nominated. He had raised $6.7 million as of the end of 2018.
This race will have the eyes — and the money — of the entire nation on it.
Especially with this race coinciding with the beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign season, McCready will likely have national figures come to stump for him.
The Republican candidate could gain similar support.
The special election will be scheduled in the coming weeks.
Look for a primary around May, and a general election in October or November.