Court gives elections board a breather as 9th District remains unsettled; chairman resigns
Updated Dec. 2 to include a comment from the National Republican Congressional Committee and information about Andy Penry’s resignation.
The Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement should get a little more time to reorganize as it deals with challenges to the outcome in North Carolina’s 9th U.S. Congressional District race.
The board was supposed to dissolve by court order Monday, Dec. 3 — the certification date for all 2018 election results. But Friday evening, legislative leaders learned the three-judge Superior Court panel handling the lawsuit will delay imposing its order until Wednesday, Dec. 12.
Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, told Carolina Journal the court said it would issue the stay Monday. Lawmakers had asked the court to delay its order to give legislative leaders and Gov. Roy Cooper time to develop the structure of a new board.
(To read the court order, click here.)
Meantime, it’s unclear who will represent the 9th District in the 116th Congress — and how the elections board will proceed over the next week.
Republican Mark Harris unofficially defeated Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in a race capturing national attention. But Friday, a 7-2 elections board majority voted to delay certifying the result. Saturday, the board’s chairman, Democrat Andy Penry, resigned after Republicans and media critics said his partisan comments on social media could taint any decisions he made for the board.
The board said it will convene an evidentiary hearing by Dec. 21 into allegations of election irregularities and fraud involving absentee mail-in ballots in the 9th District. Two Republican board members, Stacy Eggers and John Lewis, backed the majority.
Harris rebuked the board’s decision. The Baptist minister said he supports investigating voter fraud and election irregularities, but any probe should be fair and focus on all political parties.
“Today, after meeting behind closed doors for almost three hours, the State Board of Elections not only refused to certify our election results, but again refused to provide any details to the public as to what exactly is being investigated,” Harris said in a Friday news release.
“But to date there is absolutely no public evidence that there are enough ballots in question to affect the outcome of this race. Accordingly, the board should act immediately to certify the race while conducting their investigation,” he said.
The Superior Court panel in October abolished the elections board after all elections were certified. The judges ruled the Republican-led General Assembly altered the board’s composition in an unconstitutional way.
Had the order taken effect Monday, an attorney in Cooper’s office said the nine-member board must revert to its previous five-member format and shed the ethics and lobbying components that were added to it. No one knew who would be part of the reconstituted board.
Harris said the uncertainty would have disenfranchised voters. For now, negotiations over a new board and the investigation of potential voter fraud in the 9th District can continue.
Jack Minor, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, R-6th District, chairman of the influential House Republican Study Committee, said Walker wasn’t ready to say whether Harris needed state certification to be seated.
First, Walker wants the legal issues resolved. “We are trying to get a feel for what exactly is going on, and how it pertains to House rules/procedures.”
Democrat Joshua Malcolm, the state board vice chairman, first raised the issue of absentee ballot funny business at a Tuesday board meeting during which the board didn’t certify the 9th District results.
He introduced Friday’s motion to hold an evidentiary hearing to look into “claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities related to absentee by-mail ballots and potentially other matters.” News reports say Bladen County had an unusually high number of absentee ballots and abnormally high Republican and unaffiliated votes for Harris. Some voters filed affidavits saying they gave their signed but incomplete ballots to third parties to submit.
Malcolm said he wanted to “assure that the election is determined without taint of fraud or corruption, and without irregularities that may have changed the result.”
McCready, who conceded to Harris the day after the election, took to Twitter Thursday to back the election board’s decision not to certify Harris.
“Today’s news reports of the serious allegations in Bladen County are troubling. We cannot allow anyone to tamper with our elections or sabotage our electoral process. I stand with voters all across the 9th District in wanting to make sure any wrongdoing is investigated and prosecuted regardless of the outcome of the election,” McCready said in his post.
“I am confident the State Board of Elections will take the right course of action by holding a full public evidentiary hearing before certifying the election,” he wrote.
Penry was the subject of an official complaint alleging he violated state election neutrality laws by disparaging Republicans on his social media posts. State GOP chairman Robin Hayes demanded Penry’s ouster.
“The lack of information from shameless Democrat partisan NCSBE Chairman Andy Penry makes this entire debacle difficult to grasp,” Hayes said in his written statement. On Thursday Hayes threatened legal action if Harris’ win was not certified.
Also, the News & Observer’s editorial board, in an editorial published online Friday and updated Saturday, called on Penry to leave.
Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin supported the election board’s investigation on Twitter.
“These allegations are serious and disturbing. If true, the people’s right to freely and fairly cast their votes was thoughtfully and deliberately undermined, casting a shadow over this election,” Goodwin said in a post.
“The timing and reasoning behind the board’s decision to not certify Mark Harris’ victory raises serious questions about the process,” said Kerry Rom, National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman. “This reeks of a political hit job. We demand immediate transparency from the board; it is critical in ensuring the people of NC-09 know their voice is heard and continue to believe that the democratic process is respected in this state.”
The Democratic National Congressional Committee did not respond to a request for comment.