A proposal that would require another primary in the 9th Congressional District if suspected absentee ballot fraud results in a new election won legislative approval Wednesday.
The requirement for a complete do-over in the 9th District is part of wide-ranging legislation that restructures the State Board of Elections and keeps information about campaign finance investigations secret.
The State Board of Elections is investigating potential absentee ballot fraud in Bladen and Robeson counties. Leslie McCrae Dowless, who worked as a contractor for Republican Mark Harris’ congressional campaign, is at the center of an investigation over mishandling of absentee ballots. Harris defeated Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in November, but the state board has twice declined to certify the results.
“Should the state board order a new election, it would reset the clock,” said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican. Candidate filing would reopen, and there would be, if necessary, a primary and a second primary leading to a general election.
If there is a new election, the voter ID law that the legislature passed last week would not be used.
The legislation also requires the state elections board to report on efforts to identify and investigate instances of potential absentee ballot harvesting, and report absentee ballot data and trends for the past five election cycles.
The bill also splits the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement into two agencies, returning them to their pre-2017 condition. The change is meant to resolve a long-running dispute between the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
The legislature tried to tinker with Cooper’s appointment powers and board membership, but Cooper prevailed in court. The board of elections now has nine members: four Republicans, four Democrats and an unaffiliated voter. Under the proposed law, the board would shrink to five members, with no more than three from one party. The governor would appoint all members from nominees submitted by the Democratic and Republican parties.
The bill reconstitutes the state Ethics Commission, which would have eight members. The governor would appoint four members and the legislature would appoint four.
Legislators negotiated the bill with Cooper, but Lewis said the governor has not signed off on it.
“North Carolinians deserve honest and fair elections and the Governor is reviewing this legislation carefully,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in an email.
The bill passed the House 79-19 and the Senate 34-3.
The bill gives the Ethics Commission a new duty to investigate and make recommendations to the State Board of Elections on “the appropriateness of criminal referral” for campaign finance violations. The elections board would be required to ask the Ethics Commission for its input.
The proposal also makes campaign finance investigations confidential and puts a four-year statute of limitations on those investigations.
In a Senate committee Wednesday, a legislative staff member told Sen. Terry Van Duyn, an Asheville Democrat, that the State Board of Elections would not be able to disclose a list of campaign finance investigations in response to a public records request.
State Board of Elections spokesman Pat Gannon confirmed Wednesday that, under the bill, the board would not be able to say whether investigations were being conducted.
This would depart from past practice, when the elections board has confirmed campaign finance inquiries.
Van Duyn said in an interview she did not like the confidentiality provision.
“To me, that’s less transparent,” she said. “Why should we exempt ourselves from the laws that apply to people outside this building?”
After past investigations, the Board of Elections has held hearings describing the findings before referring cases to prosecutors.
In 2016, for example, a hearing that detailed the findings of an investigation into state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell’s campaign reports revealed that he had spent campaign donations on personal expenses such as shoe repairs, theater tickets, hair cuts, family dinners, and more. The Board of Elections referred the case to prosecutors. A Wake County grand jury indicted Hartsell, and he also pleaded guilty to federal charges. Hartsell, who was from Cabarrus County, was sentenced to eight months in prison on the federal charges and to probation in Wake County Superior Court.
The bill requires the elections board to refer campaign finance cases to the home district of the person it investigated.
In October, the elections board held a hearing where it described the results of its investigation into Rep. Rodney Moore’s campaign finance reports and the Charlotte Democrat’s failure to disclosure more than $141,00 in donations and expenditures over at least seven years, the Charlotte Observer reported.
The bill may disallow elections board hearings that detail findings of campaign finance investigations.
State elections attorneys are still studying the bill, but “preliminary analysis is those types of hearings would no longer be allowed,” said Gannon, the elections board spokesman.
Jane Pinsky, executive director of the NC Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform said the state shouldn’t make it harder for citizens to know about campaign finance violations.
“It undermines people’s belief in government,” she said.