Politics & Government

NC election dispute to leave 773,000 without voice in Congress: ‘It is a great loss’

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Election fraud investigation

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For the second time in five years, three-quarters of a million North Carolinians are about to find themselves without representation in Congress.

For how long is an open question.

The disputed election in the 9th District means the seat won’t be filled by the time the new Congress takes office Jan. 3.

It will remain empty until at least Jan. 11, when the state board of elections is scheduled to hold a hearing on allegations of election fraud centered on Bladen County in the eastern part of the district that stretches from central Charlotte.

The board could certify the election, in which Republican Mark Harris beat Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. Or it could order a new election, though it’s unclear when that would be.

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Even if the state board were to certify the election, the new Democratic-controlled House may not seat Harris without a new election.

It will be the second time in five years that a Charlotte-area congressional seat has been empty. In 2014, a vacancy in the 12th District lasted more than 10 months.

“In terms of a voice on policy decisions, it is a great loss to the constituents and to the voters of the 9th,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.

Incumbent Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger, who lost the primary, will be out of Congress on Jan. 2. His staff already has cleared out its Washington office, leaving a handful of staffers sharing a cubicle in the basement of a House office building.

What’s left of his Charlotte staff has been breaking down their office. On Monday, a contractor came for their phones. On Tuesday, a mover was coming for computers and everything else.

Incumbent US Rep. Robert Pittenger lost to Mark Harris by 828 votes in the May primary. More than half of that lead came from mail-in absentee ballots in Bladen County. File photo

“We will work remotely as best we’re able until they take our cellphones away,” Chief of Staff Jamie Bowers said. “It’s not our timetable. But we have to comply.”

Harris, meanwhile, had hired a chief of staff and already been assigned an office on Capitol Hill. He’d even chosen new paint colors. But all that is on hold. Two Democratic members of Congress say they don’t expect him to be seated on Jan. 3.

So what happens to constituent cases?

Every year a congressional office handles thousands of cases involving federal benefits and other issues. Bowers said Pittenger’s staff of 15 dealt with veterans cases, people needing expedited visas and passports, Social Security and Medicare claims, family emergencies and help dealing with a medical emergency in a foreign country.

Normally when a lawmaker leaves, there’s a relatively smooth transition to his or her replacement. This time is complicated not only by the clouded election but by the House changeover from Republican to Democratic control, with new members and staffs in charge.

A spokesperson for the Committee on House Administration said in the absence of an elected lawmaker, the non-partisan House clerk would hire temporary staff to deal with constituent issues and try to retain the current staff if possible. However the district could be left with skeleton staffs in Washington and Charlotte.

Peter Whippey, the committee’s Democratic communications director, said the House clerk would administer the day-to-day operations of a vacant office.

Bowers said Pittenger’s staff has set up voicemail that directs callers to the offices of North Carolina’s U.S. senators, Thom Tillis or Richard Burr.

In January 2014, the 12th District seat became vacant when Democratic Rep. Mel Watt left to become director of the National Housing Finance Agency. Then-governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, decided to hold a special election at the same time as scheduled elections. So Watt’s seat remained vacant until Democrat Alma Adams won a special election that November.

She was sworn in shortly after the vote.

“It’s awful when people don’t have representation,” Adams told the Observer this week.

Follow more of our reporting on The North Carolina election fraud investigation

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Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.