McCready-Harris re-do isn’t enough; start over entirely

Amid all the questions about possible fraud in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District election, one thing seems clear: If there was fraud, it’s extremely likely that it affected the Republican primary as much as it did the November general election.

That’s why the U.S. House shouldn’t play politics and merely sign off on any state board of elections plan for a new election between Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Mark Harris (and Libertarian Jeff Scott). It instead should order a complete do-over, with primaries open to all candidates, including Republican incumbent Robert Pittenger, who may have been the biggest victim of all.

In the May 8 primary, Pittenger and Harris almost perfectly split the mail-in absentee votes across the rest of the district, 173-169. But in Bladen County, Harris won the absentee votes 437-17. That should set off deafening alarm bells.

Pittenger says he complained to Republican officials at the time, but was pretty much ignored. The Republican Party’s executive director, Dallas Woodhouse, told MSNBC that the complaints “didn’t register,” and the Washington Post reported that the party wanted to quickly coalesce behind Harris to take on the well-funded McCready.

So the results of the primary are as tainted as the results of the general election. The state board of elections plans to hold a hearing the week before Christmas and could order a new election. But here’s the catch: According to former General Assembly counsel Gerry Cohen, the state board can order only a new general election featuring the same three candidates. It cannot order a new primary because it already certified the primary’s results.

That leaves it up to the U.S. House to do the right thing. Republicans can’t do anything in their final weeks in the majority. Democrats take over the House on Jan. 3. They might be tempted to hold only a new general election (cloaked in a deference to state authorities) because it could help them politically. Harris has surely lost some popularity over this scandal, so a McCready-Harris rematch could be appetizing for Democrats.

But it’d be the wrong thing to do. The House, led by Democrats, on Jan. 3 should vacate the election results and order a new election with primaries. Pittenger, Harris and any other Republican would be able to file (and any Democrat). Only that would provide the entirely clean slate that 9th District voters deserve. Some have even floated the idea of just naming McCready the winner, an absurd idea.

Absent a new primary ordered by the U.S. House, the only way Pittenger or any Republican replaces Harris on the ballot is if Harris moves to another state. If that happens, Republican officials would name a replacement. But Harris would have to move, Cohen says; he can’t just decline the nomination.

(A new election could leave the seat open well into next summer, and that’s unfortunate. But Cohen reminds us that Republicans who decry a lack of representation in the 9th were silent when Rep. Mel Watt resigned from the 12th District seat in December 2013 and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory kept the seat open for 11 months rather than hold an election.)

The problems in this year’s 9th District election extended back to the primary. The response must as well.