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N.C. judge turns down GOP candidate's request to certify disputed congressional race

Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway suggested that it would be an overreach for the court to determine the outcome of a disputed election.
Superior Court Judge Paul C. Ridgeway during a hearing Tuesday in Raleigh, North Carolina.Robert Willett / The News and Observer via AP

WASHINGTON — A North Carolina judge on Tuesday denied Republican Mark Harris' request to certify the still-disputed congressional race in the state's 9th Congressional District, saying that the North Carolina Board of Elections should complete its investigation before the court considers intervening.

Attorneys for Harris, who finished with a 905-vote lead in November's general election, argued that the ongoing delays in the state's investigation and uncertainty about the process going forward was enough reason for the judge to intervene and grant Harris' petition.

Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway ruled against the request, and he expressed skepticism during the two-hour hearing in Raleigh on Tuesday, suggesting that it would be an overreach for the court to determine the outcome of the election before the state board had concluded its investigation.

“Certification is not appropriate until the investigation into the protest is concluded," Ridgeway said.

The state Board of Elections has not certified the results of the race between Harris and Democrat Dan McCready because of its ongoing investigation into allegations of irregularities and fraudulent activities related to absentee by-mail voting.

Harris' attorney David Freedman argued that Harris is not suggesting that an investigation shouldn't continue but that the race should be certified without further delay.

“We are a couple months past the election, and we don’t have representation for the residents of the 9th District,” Freedman said.

Ridgeway said the court shouldn't rule on the issue because it didn’t have access to the records and investigative documents that have been collected in the case.

“Why are we looking at a dramatic intervention of one branch of government into another branch of government?” Ridgeway asked.

Representing McCready was attorney Marc Elias, a Democratic heavyweight who served as general counsel for the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and for other high profile Democratic Party entities.

In a statement after the decision, North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said, "We are pleased that Harris’ frivolous request has been denied and that North Carolina can get back to investigating allegations of systematic electoral fraud committed on behalf of Harris’ campaign."

But North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said "nothing about today’s court hearing changes the fact that Congressman-Elect Dr. Mark Harris won the election."

"He received more legal votes and no public evidence has shown the outcome is in doubt," Hayes said. "We are confident that Dr. Harris will be certified by the new State Board and will be seated in Washington."

Central to the disputed race are allegations of unusual voting activity involving absentee ballots, especially in rural Bladen County. The investigation has centered on political operative McCrae Dowless who was hired by the political consulting firm Red Dome, which was working on grassroots outreach for the Harris campaign.

Since Election Day, the North Carolina Board of Elections has been upended by both political and legal activities unrelated to the disputed congressional race but directly having an impact on it.

In response to a lawsuit by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who alleged that the independent, bipartisan nine-member board was unconstitutional, a three-judge panel ordered that the board be dissolved.

That ruling resulted in the creation of a new board that will be made up of three Democrats and two Republicans, giving Democrat McCready an advantage in the case.

Harris' attempt to convince the court to decide was a last-ditch effort to certify the race before the new, Democrat-majority board is seated.

In an interview with NBC News after Tuesday’s ruling, Josh Lawson, general counsel for the State Board of Elections, said investigators will now be able to not only continue gathering material for the investigation, but also to publicly present all of its findings.

“We will have a forum to present those to the board and the board is going to be able to make a final determination as to the outcome of last November’s election — whether it should be left as-is or whether there is an appropriate remedy, up to and including a new election.”