Politics & Government

Judge denies Mark Harris request to certify his win despite election fraud investigation

Judge rules against Mark Harris in NC 9 election fraud case

In his ruling on a petition by Republican Mark Harris, Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway said it would be inappropriate for him to order elections officials to take an action while they are still investigating election fraud in NC 9.
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In his ruling on a petition by Republican Mark Harris, Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway said it would be inappropriate for him to order elections officials to take an action while they are still investigating election fraud in NC 9.

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Election fraud investigation

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The state’s investigation into alleged election fraud by the Mark Harris campaign will continue, a judge ruled Tuesday morning.

Harris is the Republican candidate who appeared to narrowly win an election for North Carolina’s 9th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2018 elections. But the state has not certified his victory, due to an ongoing investigation into alleged fraud related to mail-in absentee ballots.

Harris and his legal team had asked Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway to order the state to certify the results of the election despite the investigation, which could then send Harris to Congress. Following two hours of arguments from Harris’ lawyers Tuesday morning, as well as lawyers for the state and Harris’ 2018 Democratic opponent Dan McCready, Ridgeway said he would deny Harris’ request.

“This is an extremely unusual situation, with no board in place, and asking this court to step in and exert extraordinary power in declaring the winner of an election, when that is clearly the purview of another branch of government,” he said during the hearing.

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Neither Harris nor McCready attended the hearing Tuesday. In a press conference afterward, McCready spokesman Aaron Simpson said that “the most important thing is that people get the answers they deserve” and he hopes the investigation is concluded soon.

“I think both sides agree that it’s important that the people of North Carolina have a voice in Washington.”

In his ruling, Ridgeway — a Democrat who is Wake County’s senior resident superior court judge — said it would be inappropriate for him to order elections officials to take an action while they are still investigating.

The state elections board “has authority under (state law) to initiate and consider complaints on its own motion,” Ridgeway said. “Until a protest is resolved there is no requirement the board must certify an election.”

Complicating matters is the fact that there is currently no state board of elections, as Ridgeway alluded to. The board that began the investigation was ruled unconstitutional and then dissolved, and the board that will replace it is not scheduled to be created until Jan. 31.

Here's an overview of the election fraud allegations in North Carolina's congressional 9th district.

In a press release sent after Ridgeway’s ruling, the state agency that oversees elections said that although there won’t be a politically appointed elections board in place until Jan. 31 or later, the board’s professional staff are still at work with this investigation.

“State Board investigators continue to thoroughly investigate irregularities, including absentee-by-mail voting irregularities, in the 2018 general election,” the board’s statement said. “Elections staff are preparing for a public evidentiary hearing to give North Carolina voters a full picture of the issues that affected that contest.”

David Freedman, one of Harris’ attorneys, said in a press conference after the hearing that they hope to resolve the investigation after the new board is sworn in.

“We wanted the opportunity to let Dr. Harris tell his story,” Freedman said. “He told his story to the election board. ... He has faith in the system. That’s why he has continued to cooperate.”

In the meantime, state government attorney Amar Majmundar argued, there is no one who could certify an election even if Ridgeway had ordered it. And Marc Elias, a prominent Democratic lawyer involved in the case, said that while other states have rules that elections investigations should be handled quickly, North Carolina is “a get-it-done right” state, which gives “sweeping authority” to investigators to take their time in getting to the bottom of election investigations.

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Attorney Amar Majmundar with the NC Department of Justice argues for the State during a hearing on Mark E. Harris v. NC State Board of Elections on Tuesday, January 22, 2019 in Superior Court in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Early in the proceedings Tuesday, Ridgeway said that “I don’t think anybody knows what the investigation shows” and asked Harris’ attorneys why they couldn’t wait nine days to see what the new elections board will do, instead of asking a judge to circumvent that process.

Freedman said the lack of an elections board right now is beyond their control. He said Harris has already sat with investigators for questioning and turned over documents. Since investigators have not yet published any findings that he won due to fraud, Freedman said, the state should certify him “and remove this taint from Dr. Harris.”

Majmundar said it would be “great” if the investigation found Harris’ win was not tainted by fraud — but that investigators need time to find the truth.

“It’s the remedy,” he said. “And that’s not just for Dr. Harris. It’s the remedy for anyone.”

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Attorney David B. Freeman, who represents Mark E. Harris, makes an argument during a hearing on Mark E. Harris v. NC State Board of Elections on Tuesday, January 22, 2019 in Superior Court in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.

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