Three months after the midterm elections, voters in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District may finally find out who their congressperson will be, or whether they will need to head to the polls again.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections will meet Monday for what could be a multi-day hearing to consider evidence that investigators have been gathering for months.
In the unofficial tally for the 9th District race, Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. But the election has been tainted by allegations that an operative hired by Harris collected and potentially manipulated some vote-by-mail ballots.
Investigators for the state board of elections have been looking into the accusations since early December.
Person of interest was known before
Shortly after the 2018 midterms, the state board of elections voted in a bipartisan manner to delay certification of the race and instead to begin an investigation. McCrae Dowless was named a person of interest by the board shortly after.
Dowless has repeatedly declined comment to NPR, and has not spoken publicly since the investigation began. His attorney, Cynthia Adams Singletary, released a statement in December saying Dowless did not break any laws and that any investigation would prove that.
A number of voters have come forward to say that Dowless or people paid by Dowless picked up their vote-by-mail ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina.
Election results in Bladen County, where Dowless is based, also indicated something was amiss.
Harris won 61 percent of the vote-by-mail ballots in Bladen, despite only 19 percent of the voters who voted by mail being registered Republican. For Harris to have ended up with that 61 percent, he would have had to win every single Republican and unaffiliated voter and some registered Democrats as well, leading to questions about whether ballots were manipulated or tossed out.
Harris has said he was in frequent contact with Dowless throughout his campaign, even saying that he had a "pastorly" relationship to him, but he says he knew of no illegal activity going on. Harris told the Associated Press last week that he was unaware of Dowless' criminal record, which included convictions for insurance fraud and perjury, and of Dowless' previous history of unsavory election tactics.
The state board of elections investigated potential election fraud in Bladen County in 2016, and Dowless testified at a public hearing, which was featured in an episode of the nationally-syndicated radio show and podcast This American Life.
The state board forwarded its investigative findings to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina in 2017.
"Our findings to date suggest that individuals and potentially groups of individuals engaged in efforts to manipulate election results through the absentee ballot process," wrote board of elections executive director Kim Strach in January 2017. "The evidence we have obtained suggest that these efforts may have taken place in the past and if not addressed will likely continue for future elections."
Potential next steps
The state board of elections, which consists of three Democrats and two Republicans, is expected to vote at the end of the hearing on how to proceed.
To certify Harris would require three votes, meaning at least one Democrat would have to vote in favor. And to hold a new election would require four votes, meaning at least one Republican would have to vote in favor.
If the board is deadlocked after the hearing, Harris would be certified according to North Carolina law. But Democrats who now hold the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives have indicated they would not seat Harris if questions remain about the election's fairness,. In that case, the House could deem the seat vacant, which would then give Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, the authority to call a new election.
In the case of a whole new race, constituents in the 9th District will probably go much of 2019 without representation in Congress. Experts say between the length of filing periods and new primaries, a new House member probably wouldn't be seated until late summer or fall.