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North Carolina Elections Board Dissolves, Adding New Chaos in House Race


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The North Carolina state elections board dissolved on Friday under a court order, two weeks before its much-anticipated hearing to consider evidence of possible absentee ballot fraud in the disputed November election for the Ninth District’s seat in Congress.


The unwinding of the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement is a consequence of a long-running battle over partisan power in North Carolina and separate from the election fraud investigation. Yet the dissolution heightened the possibility that the Ninth District seat would remain empty for weeks or even months, and it plunged the chaotic fight for the House seat into deeper turmoil.


Mark Harris, the Republican nominee in the district, appeared to defeat Dan McCready, the Democratic candidate, by 905 votes in last month’s general election. But state officials have been investigating whether a contractor for Mr. Harris engaged in illegal activity to compromise the election on the Republican’s behalf. According to witnesses and affidavits, the contractor, L. McCrae Dowless Jr., and people working for him collected absentee ballots in violation of state law.


The allegations of misconduct prompted the elections board to refuse to certify Mr. Harris as the winner. An ongoing state investigation has involved more than 100 interviews and at least 182,000 pages of records so far, officials said.


No one has been charged in connection with the allegations, including Mr. Dowless, who has a history of convictions for fraud and perjury and was previously scrutinized by the authorities for possible election tampering. Mr. Dowless, who has declined to comment, refused a request to meet with state investigators.


Those investigators were to present their findings at an elections board hearing on Jan. 11. After reviewing any evidence, the state board was expected to determine whether to order a new election under a North Carolina law that allows a new vote if “irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.”


But plans for the January hearing, and the fate of the nine-member board, eventually ran headlong into a case that dealt with the constitutionality of the elections board’s design. On Thursday night, in a decision that stunned North Carolina Democrats and Republicans alike, a three-judge panel angrily rejected a bipartisan request to extend the life of the board temporarily.


The ruling left the board with less than 24 hours to exist, and plans for the Jan. 11 hearing uncertain. Some state officials said on Friday that the structure of legislation setting up the future elections board meant it could not begin operations until Jan. 31.


But Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said Friday that he intended to name an interim board until the new law took effect. Republicans said that they would challenge such a move.


Mr. Harris, who previously acknowledged that he directed Mr. Dowless’s hiring but said he knew of no wrongdoing, argued Friday that the board should certify him as the winner, but the panel took no action before its dissolution at noon.


Even if the board had declared Mr. Harris the victor, there was no guarantee that the House would have seated him on Thursday, when the new Congress was scheduled to convene. Congressional Democrats, who will control the House starting next week, had signaled that they would not permit Mr. Harris’s inauguration while the allegations of fraud were unsettled.


The House has the constitutional authority to be “the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members.”


Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democrats’ nominee for speaker, has said that she would not immediately seat Mr. Harris unless the race is certified by the state.


If it is not — and in the absence of a North Carolina board of elections — the election could become the subject of an investigation by the House Administration Committee after Democrats take power next week. The committee has the authority to fully investigate the election, to determine a winner, or to call for a new election if it deems it necessary — a process that could take at least weeks.

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