By Andrew Hay and Gabriella Borter
(Reuters) – North Carolina’s elections board on Thursday ordered a new election for a U.S. House seat after officials said corruption surrounding absentee ballots tainted the results of a 2018 vote that has embarrassed the Republican Party.
The bipartisan board’s 5-0 decision came after Republican candidate Mark Harris, confronted by days of evidence that an operative for his campaign orchestrated a ballot fraud scheme, called for a new vote in the state’s 9th Congressional District.
“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 said on the fourth day of the hearing in Raleigh, the state capital.
Elections Board Chairman Bob Cordle said “the corruption” and “absolute mess” with absentee ballots had cast doubt on the entire contest.
“It certainly was a tainted election,” Cordle said. “The people of North Carolina deserve a fair election.”
The race is the country’s last unsettled 2018 congressional contest, and the outcome will not change the balance of power in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.
But evidence of ballot fraud by the Harris campaign turned the tables on the Republican Party, which has accused Democrats with little evidence of encouraging individual voter fraud in races such as the 2016 presidential election.
Harris’ request for a new vote came as a surprise after he spent months trying to fend off a rerun. He led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes out of 282,717 ballots cast on Nov. 6, but elections officials refused to certify him the winner because of allegations of irregularities in the vote.
The pastor capitulated after his son testified he had warned his father of potential illegal activity by Republican political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless.
North Carolina law requires that a new primary nominating election also be conducted in the district, which covers parts of Charlotte and the southeast of the state. Republicans have held the seat since 1963.
It is unclear whether Harris, 52, will run again. He told the board he was recovering from an infection last month that led to sepsis and two strokes, and said his illness led to memory lapses during the hearing that made him realize he was not prepared for the “rigors” of the proceeding.
North Carolina’s Democratic Party said the hearing laid bare the Harris campaign’s “illegal scheme to steal an election.” McCready wasted no time in tweeting to supporters to donate to his campaign for the new election.
“Today was a great step forward for democracy in North Carolina,” he tweeted.
If Democrats pick up the seat, they would widen their 235-197 majority in the House after taking control of the chamber from President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans in the November elections.
State Republicans said they respected Harris’ decision to resolve a “tremendously difficult situation.”
“The people of North Carolina deserve nothing less than the full confidence and trust in the electoral system,” party Chairman Robin Hayes said in a statement.
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.
Harris campaign officials said they did not pay Dowless to do anything illegal, and Dowless maintained his innocence.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, James Dalgleish and Peter Cooney)