If congressional race deemed tainted, will redo get support?

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Attorneys for the candidates in the nation's last undecided congressional race are anticipating the possibility that North Carolina's elections board finds the contest tainted by ballot fraud, but have proposed distinct options should the divided body fail to order a re-do.

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Lawyers for Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready submitted separate legal arguments Tuesday on how they think the state elections board should approach a hearing next week, when investigators unveil their findings in the 9th congressional district. Harris had a narrow lead on Election Day, but investigators suspected a political operative working for the Republican tampered with or even discarded mail-in ballots.

It's illegal in North Carolina for anyone other than a family or guardian to handle a voter's ballot.

The two sides offered different suggestions on what should happen if the board finds the election was tainted but neither of the two Republicans on the five-member board agrees to order a new election.

Harris' lawyers argued that if the elections board does not agree to order the contest re-run, it must declare the Republican the winner.

"Simply put, the State Board may not withhold a Certificate of Election indefinitely. The election code forbids it," Harris' attorneys said.

Even if illegal ballot-harvesting by a campaign worker took place, Harris didn't know about it, didn't condone it and meanwhile thousands of other voters who backed the Republican and other candidates would see their votes cast aside, GOP attorneys said.

"It is our understanding that it would be unprecedented for this State Board to determine that a new election must occur in the Ninth District because of 'taint' or irregularities in delivery of ballots to the ballot-box, when other contests on the same ballot in the same county were certified," Harris' attorneys said.

McCready's lawyers said Harris personally hired the operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., despite his sketchy history in rural Bladen County politics. The Democrat's team said that if the board finds the election was tainted but neither of the two Republicans on the five-member board agrees to order a do-over, the collected evidence should go to the Democrat-dominated U.S. House to decide.

Dowless' work for Harris included collecting ballots — some incomplete and some in unsealed envelopes — that affected almost 1,400 cast in Bladen and neighboring Robeson counties, while nearly 1,200 other mail-in ballots were sent to voters and never returned, McCready's lawyers said. That's enough to erase Harris' 905-vote lead after Election Day, Democratic attorneys said.

"Though the full scope of fraudulent activity may never be known, the record makes clear that the results of the entire election are tainted, and its fairness is in doubt. Moreover, the Harris Campaign should have known it was benefiting from fraud, and there is strong evidence that they did know and that local election officials aided the scheme," McCready's lawyers said.

Dowless got help from Bladen County election officials who improperly counted early returns and told Dowless about the results, and also gave him a list of the names, addresses, and races of voters who had just been mailed their mail-in ballot forms, McCready's attorneys said.

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/emery%20dalesio.

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Associated Press writer Gary D. Robertson contributed to this report.