The elections board in the US state of North Carolina has ordered a new vote in the country’s last undecided congressional race after officials said corruption surrounding absentee ballots tainted the results of last November’s vote.
The five-member State Board of Elections on Thursday unanimously backed new polls in the 9th Congressional District but did not immediately set a date.
In making the motion to order a new election, election board chairman Bob Cordle cited “the corruption, the absolute mess with the absentee ballots”.
“It certainly was a tainted election,” Cordle said. “The people of North Carolina deserve a fair election.”
The panel’s vote came after Republican candidate Mark Harris, in a surprising move, dropped his bid to be declared the winner and instead said he believed a new election should be held.
His change of stance came on the fourth day of an election board hearing at which investigators and witnesses detailed evidence of ballot fraud by operatives on his payroll.
“Through the testimony, I’ve listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called,” Harris said. “It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the 9th District seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.”
At the same time, Harris denied any knowledge of the illegal practices allegedly used by his operatives.
Harris left the hearing room without answering questions. It was not immediately clear whether he intends to run in a new election.
The decision on Thursday could leave the seat empty for months. The elections board’s lawyer plans to review the laws on scheduling new primaries and a new general election and propose dates to the board for its approval.
Harris led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes out of about 280,000 cast, in a mostly rural district that includes part of Charlotte and extends eastwards through several counties along the southern edge of North Carolina. But the state refused to certify the outcome as allegations surfaced that Harris political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless may have tampered with mail-in absentee ballots.
The congressional seat has been in Republican hands since 1963.
North Carolina Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse said he learned of Harris’s decision only minutes before. “There’s no way that anybody has contemplated what’s next,” he said.
Harris told the board that he was still dealing with health problems caused by a blood infection that landed him in a hospital and led to two strokes since the election, adding, “I struggled this morning with both recall and confusion.”
But he insisted: “Neither I nor any of the leadership of my campaign were aware of or condoned the improper activities that have been testified to in this hearing.”
According to testimony and other findings detailed at the board hearing, Dowless conducted an illegal “ballot harvesting” operation while working for Harris. Dowless and his assistants helped voters obtain absentee ballots and then gathered up the filled-in ballots from them by offering to put them in the mail, the board was told.
Dowless’s workers in rural Bladen County testified that they were directed to collect blank or incomplete ballots from voters, forge signatures on them and even fill in votes for local candidates. It is generally against the law in North Carolina for anyone other than the voter or a family member to handle someone’s completed ballot.
Earlier on Thursday, Harris testified that Dowless had assured him that he would not collect absentee ballots in violation of state law. “I’ll never forget. He said it again and again. He said, ‘We do not take the ballot,'” Harris testified.