(Reuters) - A partisan fight over a North Carolina congressional contest under investigation for election fraud intensified on Friday after legal developments reshaped a state elections board.
A combination of court rulings and changes to state law left the top vote-getter in an initial tally, Republican Mark Harris, seemingly no closer to taking office.
A leading Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, Steny Hoyer, said his party would object to seating Harris when it takes control in the new Congress that convenes on Jan. 3.
“In this instance, the integrity of our democratic process outweighs concerns about the seat being vacant at the start of the new Congress,” Hoyer said in a statement, citing “the now well-documented election fraud that took place” in the contest.
Harris filed an emergency petition earlier on Friday 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 by a state court ruling and newly passed law. The state elections board was disbanded on Friday, after a state court on Thursday declined to extend a stay on a previous order declaring the composition of the board unconstitutional.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said he would immediately appoint an interim board to continue the investigation until a restructured elections 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.
North Carolina’s board of elections could order a new vote. The U.S. House could also rule on the election outcome in a contest where Harris initially edged out Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes.
Since the November election, residents of rural Bladen County have stated in affidavits that people came to their homes and collected incomplete 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.
In a statement, Harris’ attorney David Freedman said the Republican candidate had cooperated fully with the state investigation and looked forward to its resolution “so that he may serve the people of the Ninth Congressional District as he was elected to do.”
A representatives for the McCready campaign could not immediately be reached for comment.
State Democrats contend that Republicans have undermined the elections system by a Republican-controlled legislature ramming through changes, including the reshaped elections board.
“Mark Harris and the Republicans who support him want to steal this election,” North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Wayne Goodwin said at a news conference. “They want to have him certified and sworn into Congress even though we have immensurable questions at this point.”
Reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann; Editing by Leslie Adler and Cynthia Osterman