While the 116th Congress is now in session in Washington, no one has been seated from North Carolina's 9th Congressional District amid an ongoing investigation into possible absentee ballot fraud benefiting the campaign of Republican Baptist minister Mark Harris, who came away from the November election with just 905 more votes than Democratic businessman Dan McCready.
Although North Carolina's State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement (NCSBE) was dissolved last month by court order and a new board that will be made up of three Democrats and two Republicans won't be appointed until Jan. 31, its staff has continued to investigate the fraud allegations.
"The agency remains steadfast in its obligation to ensure confidence in the elections process," said NCSBE spokesperson Patrick Gannon.
Investigators are looking into whether there was an organized effort to illegally collect absentee ballots from thousands of voters in the district that stretches from Charlotte to Fayetteville and then not give those ballots to the proper election authorities. The conclusion of the investigation could lead to an order for a special election, which would require the votes of four of the five board members. But the new board isn't the only authority that could order a new election: The courts and Congress also have that power, as does the governor in some cases.
Harris has filed a lawsuit in North Carolina state court seeking to force the elections board to certify his win. He and North Carolina Republicans argue that there isn't enough evidence to prove the ballot irregularities determined the outcome of the race. A hearing has been set for Jan. 22.
Meanwhile, McCready has filed a motion asking the court to deny Harris' certification request. His attorneys argue Harris fails to satisfy "even one, let alone all" of the legal requirements to issue a writ of mandamus, which would force certification of the election.
On the national level, U.S. House leaders have already said they are preparing to launch their own investigations into the race if the state courts certify the election results before the board's investigation is complete. The House Administration Committee, now controlled by the new Democratic majority, has the authority to investigate the 2018 results and recommend another election. The committee chair, Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California, has already asked North Carolina elections officials to preserve all original notes, recordings, and/or documents used in the investigation.
There's growing anger in the district over the slow pace of efforts to resolve the outcome of the race. On Jan. 11, district voters joined with representatives of voting rights advocacy groups to march from the elections board to the U.S. attorney's office in Raleigh to demand action.
"Bladen County residents need assurances that their votes count and assurances that the U.S. Department of Justice believes it is important to protect democracy in our country against all conspiracies to defraud voters — whatever their political affiliation, economic status, or color of their skin," said Rev. Gregory Taylor of Bladenboro's First Baptist Church.