BLADEN COUNTY, NC (WECT) - It could be weeks before the state board of elections, courts or U.S. House of Representatives decides the next step in the election fraud investigation in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, and it could be months before the situation is entirely settled.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections could hold a hearing about the alleged fraud and call for a new election, as could the U.S. House.
State Republican party leaders have said they are confident a new election will not be called, and candidate Mark Harris, a central figure in the investigation and the unofficial winner of the ninth district, has a case pending in court. Harris asked the Wake County Superior Court to force the NCSBE to certify the election.
Experts in North Carolina’s political landscape and election law say no matter which path the investigation goes down, the process will likely take months.
After Harris filed his writ of mandamus, a court spokesperson said there will be a hearing, but not before Jan. 14, when documents are due from each side.
Even if the court rules in Harris' favor, former special counsel to the General Assembly Gerry Cohen said the U.S. House has constitutional authority to refuse to seat Harris. Democratic leaders in the House have said if the board certifies Harris without completing the investigation, the House may seek legal action against the state.
Cohen said even if the Superior Court grants Harris' request, that decision could be appealed all the way up to the state Supreme Court.
Catawba College politics and history professor Michael Bitzer said he doesn’t think the court would rule before the investigation is complete.
“It’s much like a criminal matter," Bitzer said. "Why would a defendant go before a judge and say ‘Render a decision when I’m still under investigation?’”
The North Carolina State Board of Elections will be re-established on Jan. 31 as Gov. Roy Cooper fulfills the new law passed by the General Assembly appointing three Democrats and two Republicans. The nine-member iteration of the board was dissolved on Dec. 28, leaving the future of the investigation in question.
“Simply because we are on a hiatus until Jan. 31, we are really kind of in legal limbo on this situation,” Bitzer said.
In the law passed in the 11th hour of Republicans state super majority, the new board is charged with taking up any outstanding business the previous board may have left behind, including investigations. The staff at the NCSBE have continued gathering information and documents as well as interviewing key players in the investigation.
A hearing could be held as soon as early February, and the NCSBE has the power to call for a new election if there is evidence of fraud or tampering.
If the state does not call for a new election, the U.S. House could use the findings of the investigation as means to call for a new race.
The U.S. House could also launch its own investigation and call for a new election through at least two of its committees, though it’s unclear whether or not the ongoing government shutdown could delay such proceedings.
Cohen said he thinks no matter what happens on the state level, the House will be the deciding party.
“I think it’s likely, eventually, the U.S. House will deal with this one way or another, and its decision can be totally different than what either the North Carolina courts or the state board of elections decides,” he said.
If the House declares the seat vacant rather than just undecided, state law dictates what happens next, and the lengthy process for which voters are in store.
With the vacancy happening in the first year of the term for the ninth district seat, a 1947 law requires there be an entire election process, including a primary, second primary or runoff and the final election.
That process, with the 45-day minimum for absentee and military voting, takes a minimum of seven months.
With the delays due to the NCSBE being dissolved, that pushes the end of that process well into the final months of the year.
“If an election was ordered in mid January, which now seems very unlikely, we could have a March primary and a June runoff and an August election," Cohen said. "But if we fall back four to six weeks, then we run into Charlotte’s election system.”
Of the roughly 788,000 people in the ninth district, about 150,000 of them live in Charlotte, which has local municipal elections on the books for September through November.
Cohen said if a new election is called by mid February, it’s possible the ninth district race could fall in September, but if the investigation stretches beyond that, it could easily be November.
It’s also not out of the question for it to take even longer, Cohen said. If the House decides to conduct its own investigation, that could take up to four months, pushing the timeline into 2020.
The longest a congressional district in North Carolina has gone without a representative is 11 months, a record that both Cohen and Bitzer said could easily equaled or broken in this case.
And the lengthy timeline is likely to weigh on the pocketbooks of the involved counties, and on the ability of voters to stay engaged.
“I think that part of the issue is, how will voters be paying attention," Bitzer said, "and will they still have any interest in this particular race, once it’s decided, if we go to a new election cycle? It’s going to be a challenge, needless to say.”
Cohen said spending wise, counties like Bladen and Robeson are likely going to see a financial toll taken by the cost of running another election. Bitzer said the race will likely be expensive as well, but for the candidates and political parties involved who are already spending money on advertising and fundraising campaigns.
Bitzer said: “The ninth will be come very centric to national attention, national money coming in. The question is, will voters be paying attention?”