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Questions raised over Republican’s campaign debt in North Carolina election scandal

The state's board is refusing to certify the election results amid swelling controversy.

A child stands near the street of the Twisted Hickory Bladenboro Housing Authority homes in Bladenboro, NC. CREDIT: Justin Kase Conder for The Washington Post via Getty Images
A child stands near the street of the Twisted Hickory Bladenboro Housing Authority homes in Bladenboro, NC. CREDIT: Justin Kase Conder for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Controversy surrounding election fraud in North Carolina’s 9th district increased this weekend as questions surfaced about campaign debts owed by Mark Harris, the Republican initially declared the winner in the race.

According to Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, the Harris campaign currently owes $34,310 to a political consultant employed by the Red Dome Group.

The money is owed for “Reimbursement Payment for Bladen Absentee” and “Reimbursement Door to Door,” seemingly to Leslie McCrae Dowless, the consultant. Dowless was named Friday as a person of interest in a probe of possible absentee voter fraud.

The filings late Thursday cast further doubt on the NC-09 election results. Bladen County is currently under intense scrutiny over voting irregularities on Nov. 6, which saw Harris ultimately squeak past Democrat Dan McCready by only 905 votes. Robeson County is also drawing attention amid reports of absentee ballot fraud.

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Multiple North Carolina voters in Bladen County say strangers came to their homes and took their absentee ballots under the premise of delivering them and easing the process. In North Carolina, only a “close relative” may take custody of an absentee ballot per state law. Meanwhile, the Harris campaign owes almost $20,000 to Red Dome for activities in Robeson County, including mailings and advertising.

Dowless, the contractor under scrutiny, served prison time more than two decades ago for felony fraud. In 1992, he was also convicted for perjury felony.

In another twist in the saga, Jens Lutz, the vice chair of the Bladen County Board of Elections, abruptly resigned on Friday night, according to area channel WBTV.  The outlet has also reported that a Democrat-funded PAC may have also been involved in a separate case of illegal absentee voter practices in the same county.

In light of the growing controversy, the North Carolina Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has not yet certified the election results. McCready moreover withdrew his concession on Thursday in a viral tweet.

“I didn’t serve overseas in the Marines to come home to North Carolina and watch a criminal, bankrolled by my opponent, take away people’s very right to vote,” he wrote, seemingly referencing Dowless.

Heightened tension over the results is drawing attention back to a race that showcased two starkly different visions for North Carolina, especially in light of Hurricane Florence.

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Harris, who opposes marriage equality, immigration reform, and the Affordable Care Act, is also a longtime denier of established climate science. McCready, the co-founder of a solar energy investment company and a former U.S. Marine, presented a stark contrast to Harris in the wake of Florence. Endorsed by President Donald Trump, Harris has rejected human contributions to global warming. McCready, by contrast, told ThinkProgress in October that he strongly believes in climate science and in addressing climate change in North Carolina immediately.

When Hurricane Florence struck in September, McCready made an advance decision to suspend campaigning out of respect for residents facing catastrophe. Harris called that move a “transparent gimmick” and slammed McCready. Local publications at the time reported that the hurricane was becoming a significant election issue.

It’s unclear how his stances on issues like climate change and health care may have helped McCready. But NC-09 has elected Republicans for 55 years and on election night McCready came within striking distance of Harris. With the election’s results now in question and many ballots potentially compromised, the state could be looking at a second election.

That outcome has been met with consternation by the North Carolina GOP. The party initially cried foul over the state board’s refusal to certify the results but has since backed down and indicated that if new evidence emerges the GOP will support a new election.

In a statement posted to Twitter on Friday, Harris indicated that he would support a new election only if uncovered evidence “on either side” indicates that fraud “could have changed the outcome” of last month’s election.