(Reuters) - North Carolina’s elections board on Thursday unanimously ordered a new election for a U.S. House seat after officials said corruption surrounding absentee ballots tainted the results of last November’s vote.
The bipartisan board’s 5-0 decision came after Republican candidate Mark Harris requested a new vote, telling the panel that evidence of possible ballot fraud had undermined confidence in the election.
In the televised hearing, board members said “corruption” and the “absolute mess with the absentee ballots” had cast doubt on the fairness of the contest and voters deserved a fresh election.
Harris’ request for a new vote came as a surprise. For months, he had said he should be declared the victor in the 9th Congressional District after he led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes out of 282,717 ballots cast on Nov. 6. Elections officials, however, had refused to certify him as the winner due to allegations of irregularities in the vote.
“Through the testimony I’ve listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called,” Harris said at a hearing in Raleigh. “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.”
Harris’ statement came on the fourth day of a hearing on whether his campaign benefited from what state investigators called illegal election manipulation by political consultant Leslie McCrae Dowless.
Earlier on Thursday, Harris said he had known Dowless was going door to door on the candidate’s behalf to help voters obtain absentee ballots, a process that is legal. Harris said Dowless assured him he would not collect the ballots from the voters, which would violate state law.
But residents of at least two counties in the district said Dowless and his paid workers collected incomplete absentee ballots and, in some instances, falsely signed as witnesses and filled in votes for contests left blank, according to testimony at the hearing.
Kim Strach, executive director of the state’s election board, earlier this week called the operation a “coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme.”
According to text messages Harris’ attorneys turned over to the board on Thursday, Harris sought a meeting with Dowless when he learned that Dowless had led a successful absentee ballot program for Republican candidate Todd Johnson during a 2016 congressional primary election.
In those messages to a Bladen County judge, Harris asked about “the guy whose absentee ballot project for Johnson could have put me in the US House this term, had I known, and he had been helping us.”
Harris campaign officials have said they did not pay Dowless to do anything illegal, and Dowless has maintained his innocence.