When the new Congress convenes today in Washington, throngs of beaming freshmen lawmakers will pour into the U.S. Capitol for an official swearing-in ceremony, followed by swanky receptions to celebrate their arrival.
North Carolina’s Mark Harris won’t be among them.
The Republican candidate is at the center of a heated fight back home, in which state authorities are investigating claims of election fraud surrounding the 9th District seat he thought he’d clinched. Harris holds a narrow lead over Democrat Dan McCready in unofficial results in the disputed race that has roiled North Carolina politics and could result in a fresh election that could drag out for months.
“Mark will not be in Washington this week,” his campaign manager, Jason Williams, told Policy Watch yesterday. “We are hopeful that we can get this resolved as soon as possible so the 9th district can be represented in Congress.”
Harris’ campaign last night announced that it will file a petition today asking a court to “immediately” certify the results, arguing that the state elections board hasn’t disclosed any information to suggest that the votes under investigation “are sufficient in number to change the outcome of the 9th Congressional District election.”
Harris was also slated to be interviewed by state investigators today, staff at the State Board of Elections told WRAL.
It’s not the week Harris had planned.
In November, McCready quickly conceded the close race to his Republican opponent, and Harris traveled to Washington for new-member orientation later that month. He had even picked out office space, grimacing as he drew an unlucky No. 76 out of 85 in the lottery for new members, Bloomberg reported.
But the elections board refused to certify the results during an investigation into allegations that voter fraud boosted Harris’ campaign. The matter is further complicated by uncertainty surrounding the state elections board, which was dissolved in late December in response to a court order. A new board is slated to be seated on Jan. 31.
McCready withdrew his concession amid the probe, and appears ready to fight for the seat. He posted a video to his Twitter account on New Year’s Day accusing Harris of failing to cooperate with the board’s investigation. “My New Year’s resolution: Let’s bring democracy back to North Carolina,” McCready said.
Amid the uncertainty in the Tar Heel State, House Democratic leadership made it clear that Harris wouldn’t be joining their ranks when the new Congress was sworn in.
“Given the now well-documented election fraud that took place in NC-09, Democrats would object to any attempt by Mr. Harris to be seated on January 3,” incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said last week in a statement.
“In this instance, the integrity of our democratic process outweighs concerns about the seat being vacant at the start of the new Congress.”
Rep. G. K. Butterfield, a Democrat who represents North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, told Policy Watch yesterday that North Carolina’s lawmakers are watching the race “very closely.” He lamented the fact that the elections board was dissolved before it could settle the dispute.
After Republicans shot down Gov. Roy Cooper’s plans to appoint an interim elections board before Jan. 31, Butterfield said, “What’s left is to wait until Jan. 31 and appoint the new five-member board … That’s going to take some time, but I think the process has got to play out.”
That will leave constituents in the 9th District — which stretches east of Charlotte along the state’s southern border — without representation, at least for the time being.
“Any time a citizen does not have representation in a legislative body — not just Congress, but in a legislative body — there is harm, but it has happened before,” Butterfield said. Still, he added, “I think the responsibility of the state is to make sure that this investigation is completed, that the truth is uncovered.”
Butterfield is expecting a new election to be held in the 9th District, and said he expects that it will be about three months before a new representative is seated.
For now, Harris’ campaign is referring constituents to the offices of Republican Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, according to Williams. A skeleton crew of staffers in the office of outgoing Rep. Robert Pittenger (R) — whom Harris defeated in the GOP primary — will also remain to serve the district’s residents.
“We hope that it can be expedited and done rather quickly,” Williams said. “We plan on trying to explore any options we have to get the race certified.”
This isn’t the first time contested elections have left congressional seats empty at the start of a new Congress.
House Democrats refused to seat Republican Richard McIntyre in Indiana’s 8th District when he arrived on Capitol Hill on Jan. 3 1985, Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer wrote in the The Atlantic in November. The House voted along strict party lines to keep the seat vacant pending a congressional investigation into voting “irregularities.”
The House ultimately voted to seat Democrat Frank McCloskey, Zelizer wrote, enraging and emboldening House Republicans.
And in 2009, the Senate initially refused a seat to Democrat Roland Burris, who had been appointed by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill the post left vacant by Barack Obama. Blagojevich had been accused by federal prosecutors of trying to solicit money for the Senate seat. He was later convicted on federal corruption charges.
As for Democrats’ refusal to seat Harris today, Zelizer of Princeton said, Republicans “are the minority, so his vote doesn’t really matter at this point.”
And Republicans could use the Harris ordeal to rally the GOP, Zelizer added. “He could become a hero, even if he’s never seated.”
Robin Bravender is the Washington Bureau Chief for The Newsroom network, of which NC Policy Watch is a member.