RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina's governor named a new state elections board chairman on Monday, tasked with leading an investigation into alleged absentee ballot fraud and other irregularities in a very close congressional race.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper elevated Vice Chairman Joshua Malcolm to the top position. The previous chairman, Andy Penry, resigned last weekend after Republicans accused Penry of violating board rules with overtly partisan comments online in recent months.
Penry said he resigned because he didn't want to undermine an ongoing probe of potential wrongdoing in the state's 9th Congressional District.
The board voted last week to hold an evidentiary hearing on or before Dec. 21 about absentee ballots in the south-central 9th District. Unofficial results show Republican Mark Harris leading Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. The Associated Press has retracted its call of Harris being the winner, saying it is treating the board's action as if the case proceeded to a recount.
Malcolm's "leadership and experience will help ensure fair and honest elections," Cooper said in a statement. The governor also appointed another Democrat Monday to fill a vacancy on the nine-member board.
The board declined last week to finalize Harris' victory. Members have expressed concerns about voting totals in other races in Bladen and Robeson counties, two of eight counties within the district. The district attorney in Wake County also revealed Monday that her office has been investigating potential "voting irregularities" in Bladen County since early this year, going back to 2016.
A state board investigator took mail-in absentee ballot applications and envelopes from Bladen County the day after Election Day. Harris performed extremely well in Bladen County in last month's general election and during his primary election win over GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger.
Bladen also was the only county in the 9th where Harris won a majority of the mail-in absentee ballots in the general election. In the primary, Harris won 96 percent of the mail-in ballots in Bladen on the way to his narrow victory over Pittenger.
Malcolm, a Democrat from Robeson County, which adjoins Bladen, expressed frustration last week with voting problems in his area. He said information about past "unfortunate activities" had been referred to federal and local prosecutors.
Wake County DA Lorrin Freeman, whose office often investigates election-related crimes, said her Bladen County probe began 10 months ago related to 2016 voting but now includes allegations from this year's primary and general election. Freeman couldn't say when she expected a resolution.
"This is a large, paper-intensive investigation and these things just take time," Freeman said in an interview. Her investigation was first reported by The News & Observer of Raleigh.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Raleigh would neither confirm nor deny the existence of a federal investigation.
State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said recently that there's been no evidence made public that illegal conduct occurred. And Harris said late Friday that to date there was "absolutely no public evidence that there are enough ballots in question to affect the outcome of this race."
Malcolm told the AP on Monday that the board soon would inform the public on its work ahead of a hearing. He didn't say when the hearing would occur.
The state Democratic Party has provided affidavits from Bladen County residents. Registered voters signing two of the affidavits said a woman came to their homes in September and October seeking to collect their absentee ballots. Those affidavits said the woman took the ballots but they were not in sealed envelopes, as is required. Another voter said she received an absentee ballot request in the mail for which she didn't ask.
Democratic Party Chair Wayne Goodwin said Monday it was too soon to know whether the investigation would change the vote tally but said the investigation needs continue.
"From what we've seen from these sworn affidavits, and we will learn more as the hearing is held, there appears to be election tampering, election rigging, election stealing," he told reporters.
Shortly after the November 2016 election, McCrae Dowless of Bladen County filed an election protest alleging a "massive scheme" by a local political group to run an "absentee ballot mill" designed to improperly turn in votes for a write-in candidate for a local position for which Dowless was running.
Then-GOP Gov. Pat McCrory's campaign supported investigating such allegations as he trailed Cooper in their gubernatorial race. Dowless appeared in a December 2016 board hearing in which members questioned him about other voting activities and dismissed his protest.
Harris consultant Andy Yates told The Charlotte Observer that Dowless worked for him as an independent contractor, doing grassroots work for the Harris campaign. Dowless and Yates didn't return phone calls Monday seeking comment.