Updated: What we know - and need to know soon - about the Board of Elections 9th District bombshell

What’s going on in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District? An election certification is being held up. The person behind the delay is being a bit coy about it. The public is in the dark. That needs to change — and soon.

The state board of elections refused Tuesday to certify the results of the 9th District race, in which Republican Mark Harris defeated Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. That certification was expected to be routine, but election board member Joshua Malcolm raised a last minute issue concerning the 9th and asked board members to remove the results from the list of those to be certified.

Malcolm, a Robeson County Democrat, cited a statute that allowed the board to do so, but he declined to be specific about what caused him to raise his objection. That, in itself, is troubling.

Here’s what we do know:

We know that board members twice voted 9-0 not to certify the 9th District results. That means the board, which consists of Democrats and Republicans, was overwhelmingly persuaded of the seriousness of Malcolm’s concerns.

We know that Elections board spokesman Patrick Gannon told the Associated Press Wednesday that the board is investigating “irregularities” involving absentee ballots in Bladen County, which Harris won by 1,557 votes. We also know that Bladen has what can charitably be described as a colorful political history of alleged arson and fraud.

We know that Malcolm’s move Tuesday was a surprise. Neither campaign knew Malcolm’s complaint was coming, which indicates that it likely doesn’t involve an election day complaint of fraud, at least not one significant enough to cause McCready to call for an investigation before conceding this razor-thin result.

Malcolm’s comments Tuesday also seem to indicate that the issues troubling him are ongoing. “I am not going to turn a blind eye to what took place to the best of my understanding which has been ongoing for a number of years that has repeatedly been referred to the United States attorney and the district attorneys for them to take action and clean it up,” he said. “And in my opinion those things have not taken place.”

Update, 11/28, 6:30 pm: Two sources tell the editorial board that the issue specifically involves a person who allegedly gained access to absentee ballots, perhaps through voters who request them from the county or state. The ballots were filled out for Harris. This individual was suspected of similar fraud in 2016, sources said, but investigators didn’t find enough to prosecute. The number of ballots involved in the 2018 race, however, wouldn’t be enough to swing the outcome to McCready, sources said.

Malcolm isn’t offering specifics, but there are plenty of questions he can answer without jeopardizing an investigation. Such as: Are the issues he raised widespread enough to change the 9th District results? Is he merely trying to get the attention of investigators he feels have been ignoring serious long-term problems?

If that’s the case, mission accomplished. Now stop it. Holding a congressional election hostage is not the appropriate way to resolve longstanding issues, regardless of how serious they might be.

We’re in a fragile period regarding elections in this country. We have a president too ready to declare — even just this week — that results he doesn’t like are tainted. It’s become too common for members of both parties to question the legitimacy of outcomes they don’t like.

Malcolm and the board certainly might have legitimate concerns about fraud or other malfeasance in Bladen, and the investigation raises obvious questions about whether the Harris campaign knew anything about tainted absentee ballots. Malcolm, however, should address whether the issue directly changed the outcome in November’s 9th District race. If so, he owes the public more specifics, immediately. If not, this is not the best way to raise his concerns.