Clarified at 12:50 p.m. See story for details.
As evidence mounts that a North Carolina Republican candidate for Congress may have benefited from an organized election fraud scheme in the 2018 midterm elections, other GOP politicians are now saying they believe Democrats have done the same thing and should also be investigated.
They also called Thursday for the state board to stop handling the investigation into the potential fraud, and for creation of a task force that would take over.
“There must be an investigation into the years of alleged absentee ballot fraud in Bladen County that is prompt, thorough, transparent and nonpartisan,” Republican state Sen. Dan Bishop of Charlotte said at a news conference at the Legislative Building. “Troubling allegations have been leveled literally for years in Bladen.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald Sun
Bladen County, a tiny rural part of the state’s southeastern corner, and a local political operative named McCrae Dowless have emerged as the focus of an investigation into potential election fraud involving absentee ballots. Dowless worked as a contractor for Republican candidate Mark Harris’ campaign.
Harris lost the absentee vote to Democrat Dan McCready in every county in the district except for Bladen, where Harris won more than 60 percent of the absentee ballots, The News & Observer has reported.
The N.C. Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement is investigating allegations of fraud in Bladen County as well as in neighboring Robeson County. But Bishop said the board — which has four Democratic members, four Republican members and an unaffiliated member — can’t necessarily be trusted to rise above politics.
“There is reason to doubt the capacity of the state board of elections,” Bishop said.
Republicans said one of the things that made them concerned about the board’s ability to handle the investigation is that the board hadn’t taken action even though Joshua Malcolm, who is now the board’s chairman, said he had been aware of similar allegations “for years.”
Malcolm, a Democrat, was the vice-chairman when he made that remark last month. Cooper later named him chairman after the previous chairman, Democrat Andy Penry, stepped down in the face of complaints over posts he made on social media critical of Republican President Donald Trump.
Bishop and other Republican senators called on Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to work with the legislature to create a new task force to look into the Harris-McCready race, as well as allegations of fraud they believe might have helped Cooper defeat McCrory in 2016.
Cooper’s spokesman Ford Porter didn’t directly say Thursday if Cooper would support that plan.
“Governor Cooper believes North Carolinians should have confidence in the integrity of elections and allegations of fraud and tampering must be investigated,” Porter said in an email. “There are multiple ongoing criminal investigations and legislators should allow investigators and prosecutors to follow the facts and take appropriate action.”
But immediately after the GOP press conference Thursday, the state Democratic Party held its own press conference in which Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin harshly criticized the Republican legislators for what he described as an attempt to interfere in the investigation.
“Amidst overwhelming evidence of election tampering in the 9th Congressional District, Republicans are doing everything they can to distract, and obstruct justice, and avoid accountability,” he said.
Goodwin said there’s also legislation making its way through the General Assembly that would take away the power of the state elections board, as well as the Wake County district attorney’s office, to handle investigations into election fraud.
“Now, as the evidence of wrongdoing becomes overwhelming and mounts day by day, Republicans no longer want this board to investigate,” Goodwin said. “Very curious.”
On Thursday, Republicans said that although Cooper lost the statewide absentee ballot vote in 2016, he won it in Bladen County. Cooper lost the overall vote in Bladen County. They said if the Harris race is going to be investigated, then that should, too.
”Any fraud is unacceptable in this state,” Sen. Tommy Tucker of Union County said. Tucker then called the current elections board inept and lacking in transparency.
However, Tucker was one of the Republicans who voted to create the current version of the board he’s now criticizing. After Cooper defeated McCrory in 2016, Republicans have tried on several occasions — all of which have now been overturned as unconstitutional — to change the makeup of the elections board in order to lessen the governor’s influence over it.
Goodwin also noted that while Republicans are bringing up allegations of Bladen County fraud in 2016 that might have helped Democrats, those allegations were already investigated and dismissed — by a state elections board that at the time had a Republican majority.
In a twist, it was Dowless who brought that 2016 complaint, aided by lawyers from McCrory’s campaign committee. The Republican-controlled board of elections voted to dismiss his complaint then, but did send information on to the U.S. Attorney for Eastern North Carolina to look into. And on Monday, The News & Observer reported that allegations about fraud in 2016 in Bladen County are under investigation by Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.
While the board in 2016 that dismissed the GOP complaint had a 3-2 Republican majority, the current board does not have a majority from either party. It has four Democrats, four Republicans and an unaffiliated member. And the full-time professional staff is led by executive director Kim Strach. Strach was hired for that job by the election board whose members McCrory had appointed, and her husband Phil Strach is one of the primary lawyers Republican lawmakers have hired in recent years to defend the state on election-related legal issues like gerrymandering.