A trio of angry judges has once again disrupted North Carolina’s Board of Elections and thrown its ongoing election fraud investigation into the lurch.
Just when we thought we had a handle on how the 9th Congressional District probe would proceed, the Thursday ruling from a transparently frustrated panel of Superior Court judges brings us essentially back to square one.
It’s now unclear what will happen next. However, this procedural craziness is unlikely to have a major impact on the final result.
Still, the decision has also reinvigorated Republican Mark Harris, who is petitioning to have his race certified.
Here’s a simple breakdown of what just happened and what is likely to come next.
A quick catch-up
As you probably know by now, the State Board of Elections has been looking into allegations of absentee by mail fraud that benefited Republican Mark Harris in his razor-thin victory of Democrat Dan McCready for U.S. House.
Basically, the claims are that Harris hired a Bladen County political operative who requested a bunch of absentee ballots on behalf of people who didn’t want them, then either cast votes for them or destroyed their ballots.
Meanwhile, Gov. Roy Cooper has been battling with the General Assembly over the control and composition of the Board of Elections.
Back in 2016, the Board of Elections had 5 members, three from the governor’s party and two from the opposition party.
After a lot of legal wrangling, the General Assembly passed a law bumping it up to 8 members, four from the governor’s party, four from the opposition, and one member from neither.
This 8-member board is the one that’s been investigating the 9th Congressional District.
But a few weeks ago, a panel of judges in Wake County Superior Court ruled that this board was unconstitutional.
They did, however, agree to let the board keep working until the end of December as it investigated the election fraud.
The State Board of Elections was originally supposed to unveil their evidence on December 21. That date got pushed back to January 11.
Meanwhile, the General Assembly passed a new law that essentially brings the State Board of Elections back to its 2016 composition.
The law was meant to comply with the judges’ order from a few weeks ago. That board doesn’t officially start until January 31, though.
Complicated enough for you?
What the judges just ruled
Well, the Wake County Superior Court judicial panel was super angry that the State Board of Elections has been moving so slow on the 9th District investigation.
In a ruling dripping with frustration, they decided that they’re not going to extend the time the current board has to investigate. Their ruling means that the State Board of Elections dissolves at the end of December.
Remember, they were supposed to have a big hearing on January 11, and the new State Board of Elections won’t be seated until January 31.
In theory, this means that the state has no Board of Elections for a month. Normally, this wouldn’t be a huge deal. But with the 9th Congressional District investigation still ongoing, it is pretty meaningful.
What comes next
Here’s where things get interesting from a political perspective. But it likely won’t have a huge impact on the end result.
Mark Harris went to the State Board of Elections on Friday morning asking them to certify his victory because they haven’t said publicly why it shouldn’t be. This may or may not be successful, but will fascinating to see play out.
Gov. Cooper announced he will appoint a temporary 5-member Board of Elections to serve until January 31 and presumably take over the investigation, but it’s unclear whether he’s on solid legal footing to do so.
The General Assembly could potentially convene a special session — right after they adjourned for the year — to fix the latest elections board legislation to have it seated sooner and pick the investigation back up. Whatever they decide will need to have the governor’s OK, because his veto can now be sustained after Democrats broke the Republican supermajority in the state legislature.
But here’s what I think will be the most likely scenario.
The U.S. House, now controlled by Democrats, will get sworn in on January 3. They have the right to refuse to seat any of their members, and some Democrats have said Harris won’t be allowed to serve.
The U.S. House could unilaterally decide to send the 9th Congressional District back to a special election. Instead of letting North Carolina’s convoluted political system sort things out, this feels like the course of action most likely to happen.
North Carolina politics never makes things easy.