Uncertainty clouds North Carolina elections fraud investigation
FILE PHOTO: Mark Harris attends a debate between the four top-polling Republican candidates in North Carolina for the U.S. Senate, at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina April 22, 2014. REUTERS/Davis Turner/File Photo

North Carolina Republicans on Friday demanded that their party’s candidate be declared winner of a disputed U.S. congressional race following legal developments that threatened to derail an ongoing state probe into possible election fraud.

Republican Mark Harris filed an emergency petition to be certified as victor of last month’s election for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. His request was rejected by a state elections board reviewing whether mail-in ballots were illegally handled in some rural counties.

But the future of that investigation was thrown into doubt after a court ruling disbanded the elections board on Friday, after the court declined to again extend a stay on an order declaring the composition of the elections board unconstitutional.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said he would immediately appoint an interim board to continue the investigation until a restructured board was due to begin operating at the end of January under a new state law.

“It is vital that the State Board of Elections finish its investigation of potential election fraud in the Ninth Congressional District,” Cooper’s office said in a statement.

If evidence of fraud is uncovered, North Carolina’s board of elections could order a new vote. The U.S. House could also rule on the election outcome.

But North Carolina Republicans said recent developments made it unlikely that such actions would overturn an initial tally in which Harris edged out Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes.

Since then, residents of rural Bladen County have provided affidavits that people came to their homes and collected unfilled absentee ballots. It is illegal in North Carolina for a third party to turn in absentee ballots.

Republicans said the investigation has not turned up evidence of sufficient improprieties to change the outcome.

“All the Democrats want to do is delay and delay and delay,” Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, said in a phone interview.

He noted that the restructured elections board, as of February, will require a bipartisan vote to call a new election.

“There is now no chance - none - that there will be a new election called in North Carolina,” Woodhouse said.

Representatives for the Harris and McCready campaigns could not immediately be reached for comment.

State Democrats contend that Republicans have undermined the elections system by ramming in changes, including the new elections board, by a Republican-controlled legislature.

“Mark Harris is trying to steal this election,” North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said on CNN. “It is obstruction of an investigation.”

Reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann; Editing by Leslie Adler