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What's happening in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District

It became abundantly clear on Tuesday that the only way to truly resolve the ...

Posted: Dec 12, 2018 1:29 PM
Updated: Dec 12, 2018 1:29 PM

It became abundantly clear on Tuesday that the only way to truly resolve the issues at play in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District is for voters to have a second opportunity to make their voices heard.

That possibility became a bit more likely on Tuesday, when North Carolina Republicans -- the party won the congressional seat in last month's elections -- said a new election would be necessary if investigators can verify a local newspaper report that early voting results in Bladen County were leaked before Election Day.

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Here's a look at where things currently stand.

Redo looks increasingly likely

Democrats, for obvious reasons, have already started gearing up for the possibility of a new election. Dan McCready, the Democratic candidate, has started raising money and he is getting his staff back together. He is also receiving reinforcements in the form of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee staffers on the ground in North Carolina.

The big shift on Monday came from Republicans, who saw an opening in the form of the report that early vote totals were leaked ahead of election night. That led the bombastic North Carolina GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse to declare that if the revelations are true, there should be a do-over. He also added they were pretty convinced they were true.

But even though both Democrats and Republicans want a new election, to be clear, they don't have a say. This decision is still in the hands of the State Board of Elections. The NCSBE still plans to follow through on their exhaustive investigation of the matter, which will include a public hearing in the coming days. The board wants this to be about the facts, not the feelings of the players involved.

Will there be a new primary, too?

While ordering a redo of the general election is relatively easy under North Carolina law (it just requires a vote by the current board of elections), a new primary is much taller order. It is not exactly clear what it would take, but we know it is beyond the control of the Board of Elections because they had already certified the primary.

On Tuesday, Republican state lawmakers in Raleigh attempted to tie a requirement that the primary be held again in the event of a new general election to a broader bill on the composition of the Board of Elections. They ultimately could not get the votes to move the measure forward. That means a new primary would likely have to be ordered by the House of Representatives in Washington, which would likely be a complicated and messy process for which it would be difficult to muster support.

Despite those complications, expect Republicans to continue their push for a new primary. Under any circumstance, Mark Harris, the GOP representative-elect, would enter a new general election as a candidate connected to serious allegations of fraud, making his chances of winning that much more difficult. Couple that with the fact that Harris took out an incumbent Republican in Robert Pittenger and it is easy to see why the GOP would want a complete overhaul of the election, and Democrats might not.

But what about the Democrats?

Over the last few days, there has been a slow trickle of new revelations about get-out-the-vote conduct in Bladen County that is suspicious and not completely in line with North Carolina law. That conduct is not reserved to Republicans.

One specific Political Action Committee with a history of receiving donations from the North Carolina Democratic Party had two paid staffers that personally served as witnesses for more than 100 absentee ballots. In addition, a Democratic member of the Bladen County Board of Elections was once a business partner of McCrae Dowless, the central figure in the broad conspiracy being investigated by the Board of Elections and the Wake County District Attorney's Office.

Dowless has not responded to multiple calls from CNN for comment but previously denied wrongdoing to The Charlotte Observer. The state Democratic Party has defended the move by the staffers to serve as witnesses for the ballots, saying they were not party to collecting those ballots and physically submitting them on behalf of the voters.

While these stories are worth pointing out, it is important to remember there would be no talk of a new election if not for the multiple examples of potentially criminal behavior by Dowless. And while it is true that Dowless is clearly not an ideological Republican with a passion for conservative policies (he has worked for Democrats and has been registered as one in the past), in this election, at this time, he was working for the Republican candidate. He and those connected to him are the only ones being investigated for criminal activity.

Every day, a new Dowless revelation

Speaking of Dowless, the full extent of what he was up to may never be known, but it seems like there is a new clue about his operation every day. On Tuesday, a Bladen County resident (and Republican) Kenneth Simmons signed an affidavit claiming he saw Dowless with a stack of absentee ballots in his hand prior to the election. Simmons said Dowless bragged he had more than 800 in his possession. It is illegal under North Carolina law to collect and cast ballots on behalf of someone other than a close relative.

While Dowless was well known in Bladen County, it's unlikely, to say the least, that he has 800 close family members. Simmons also said he was concerned Dowless was not actually going to submit the ballots. Among the things Dowless is being investigated for is collecting ballots and not turning them in. At this point, there is no publicly revealed evidence to specifically back up that claim, but stories like this could feed that narrative.

District demographics at play

I spent most of the last two days in the 9th District talking to voters who either cast or applied for an absentee ballot and that ballot was connected to Dowless or his associates.

There was undoubtedly a trend among the people I spoke to.

They were largely uninterested in politics and did not have a specific understanding of how the process works. In many cases, they were elderly or homebound. They were also living in clusters of homes or apartments where they could easily be tracked down. Dowless knew the type of person that could fall victim to a scheme where their vote could be used for his purposes.

Even now, with all the attention paid to the story and their sleepy hometown, most did not grasp the ramifications and were surprised to see CNN knocking on their door. Despite not having a complete understanding of what was at stake, one thing was for sure: they were already suspect of a system they viewed as stacked against them, and this story has only increased that lack of trust.

"Do you want me to be honest?" Crystal Adams asked me. "When I hear them talking about it, I just walk the other way. I care nothing for politics."

In fact, she was so disgusted with politics that she specifically chose to sit out the 2018 election -- yet there was an absentee ballot application submitted in her name. An absentee ballot application that State Board of Elections records show was submitted by MacCrae Dowless. Adams told me she never filled out an application.

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