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Election Officials Suspect Fraud In N.C. Congressional Race

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Election fraud - it is something we talk about a lot, but it seldom actually happens in U.S. elections. But election officials in North Carolina are flagging that state's 9th Congressional District. They have refused to certify the race twice now, actually, after claims of fraud related to absentee ballots. Instead, they are calling for a hearing. As it stands right now, the race is extremely tight. Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by about 900 votes in the unofficial tally. Steve Harrison covers politics for member station WFAE in Charlotte and joins us this morning.

Hi there, Steve.

STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: OK. So this election not being certified, what does this mean? What exactly brought us to this moment?

HARRISON: So this was a very close race, but pretty much everyone had forgotten about it. Republican Harris, the presumed winner, he was preparing to go to Washington, D.C. Democrat Dan McCready had conceded long ago. He had taken his family to Disney World. But then as all this happened, Harris' original 1,900-vote lead had been shrinking as absentee and provisional ballots were being counted. Then last week, the North Carolina Board of Elections was meeting as a formality to certify all the races, and board members dropped a bombshell. They refused to certify the race, saying there were unfortunate activities. So they have said they were going to hold a public evidentiary hearing by December 21. And meanwhile, everyone is descending on the 9th District - the state, Democrats and the media.

GREENE: OK, unfortunate - what does that mean? What exactly happened here? Because it seems to be all focusing - or a lot of it, at least - on one county, Bladen County. So what exactly do they think happened?

HARRISON: So Bladen County is at the far eastern end of the 9th District. It's very small, rural and poor. And Bladen has a history of both Democrats and Republicans being very aggressive at getting people to vote absentee by mail. And that's legal in this state. In theory, a candidate can get a hundred percent of their votes by absentees. But what's not legal is having people collect those absentee ballots, which is known as harvesting. And that's what voters in a little town called Bladenboro say happened.

In Bladenboro, there's a campaign operative, McCrae Dowless, who was helping the Harris campaign. And records released last night show that there were about 1,700 absentee ballot requests in Bladen. And Dowless brought nearly six of them - 600 of them - excuse me - to the local board of elections. What's unknown is whether anyone tampered with those ballots. Did people fill them in? You know, did his people fill those ballots in? That's what we don't know.

GREENE: And I mean, we're talking about such a slim margin here. I mean, that number of ballots could make a difference. I'm just wondering - I mean, you have - the candidate who thought he lost heads to Disney World. The candidate who thought he won had plans to go to Washington. Now everything is thrown up in the air. What are they doing?

HARRISON: So the Harris campaign is saying, you know, well, it's OK to investigate this (coughing) - excuse me. But at the same time, we need to go ahead and certify this race. And in North Carolina, the Republicans are in somewhat of a difficult position because they are, right now in the legislature, writing a photo ID law which will require people to show an ID to vote. So they're kind of walking this tightrope of saying certify the race, but it's still OK to investigate.

GREENE: And what about the Democrat?

HARRISON: They are calling for a complete investigation and for nothing to be certified. They're still hoping they have a chance to pull this out.

GREENE: OK, the midterm elections that never seem to end - that is WFAE's Steve Harrison based in Charlotte.

Steve, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

HARRISON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "ALYTH (NUAGE REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.