Was that ballot fraud in North Carolina US House race?

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The country's last vacant congressional seat will stay that way for months after North Carolina's election board, hearing evidence of ballot fraud and testimony that the Republican ignored warning signs, ordered a new election.

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GOP candidate Mark Harris gave up his fight Thursday to be declared winner of November's 9th congressional district race, saying serious public doubts about the contest's fairness revealed in testimony this week warrant a new election.

Harris had struggled during testimony at a special state elections board hearing to explain why he was being truthful in saying publicly since Election Day he'd never been warned about a North Carolina's felon's vote-getting efforts despite repeated data-based red flags from his son dating to mid-2016.

WAS THIS AN EXAMPLE OF BALLOT FRAUD?

North Carolina's elections director said this week that a local political operative in a rural corner of the 9th district conducted an illegal and well-funded ballot-harvesting operation during the 2018 election cycle while working for Harris. Leslie McCrae Dowless' workers in Bladen County testified that they were directed to forge signatures, collect blank or incomplete ballots voters handed over, and even fill in votes for local candidates who hadn't earned them.

WERE CRIMES COMMITTED?

It's a felony under North Carolina law for anyone other than a guardian or close family member to handle a mail-in ballot because it poses the risk that they could be altered or discarded. The means ballot-harvesting — efforts to collect completed ballots — are illegal. A similar ballot-collection effort by Dowless and others was investigated by the state elections board after the 2016 elections. The findings were shared with federal prosecutors, who took no action. The district attorney in the state's capital city continues to weigh charges over the 2016 ballot fraud case.

WHEN ARE ELECTIONS?

The election board will establish dates for new elections, starting with the filing deadlines for primary elections. A state law approved in December — after the absentee voting irregularities surfaced — requires that both party primaries and a general election be held. State and federal deadlines and ballot requirements mean the general election may not occur until late summer or early fall.

WHO WILL RUN?

McCready is certainly running for the seat again and has been assembling a new campaign staff. His campaign finance report showed McCready raised $487,000 during the final five weeks of 2018, an amount which should stave off other well-known Democratic competitors. His campaign sent out a campaign funding plea late Thursday, citing the new election. Harris didn't say Thursday whether he'd run in the new election, and state Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said it was too early to say what Harris' political future would be. Several other Republicans are likely to enter the race for the GOP-leaning 9th District. The most recent 9th District incumbent, Republican Robert Pittenger, declined to comment Thursday but said in December he wouldn't run if a new election were held.

WHO WILL WIN?

The demographic and partisan data favor a Republican in the 9th District, which a Republican has held for more than 50 years. McCready enjoyed a large fundraising advantage over Harris and a national Democratic wave last fall for an extremely close race. It's unclear if any GOP nominee would be punished at the polls for Dowless' alleged misdeeds and apparent inability of Harris or Republican Party leaders to stop him, said Thomas Mills, a Democratic consultant and ex-congressional candidate: "I don't know if people will pay a price for it." Veteran Republican consultant Carter Wrenn said he doesn't know what to think: "About all that you can say for sure is that it's a mess."

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