Mark Harris

In this Nov. 7, 2018, file photo, Mark Harris speaks to the media during a news conference in Matthews, N.C. The nation's last unresolved fall congressional race with Harris against Democrat Dan McCready is awash in doubt as North Carolina election investigators concentrate on a rural county where absentee-ballot fraud allegations are so flagrant they've put the Election Day result into question. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

What in the world is going on in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District?

The eyes of the nation are now on that region, where increasingly credible allegations suggest that fraud could have changed the outcome of the Nov. 6 election for that hotly contested seat. This matter needs to be addressed openly and thoroughly to maintain public confidence in the system.

Following the election, which found Republican Mark Harris ahead of Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, the nine members of the state Board of Elections — four Democrats, four Republicans and one unaffiliated member — voted unanimously against certifying the election results because of what it called “numerous irregularities” and “concerted fraudulent activities” involving traditional mail-in absentee ballots cast in Bladen County, which is partly in the 9th, and Robeson County, which is entirely in the 9th.

As of this writing, the state board has collected at least six sworn statements from voters in Bladen County who described people coming to their doors and urging them to hand over their absentee ballots, sometimes without their being filled out. At least two county residents turned over their ballots.

“Because of the way she presented herself, I thought she was legitimate,” Emma Shipman, one of the residents, wrote in an affidavit.

Others described receiving absentee ballots by mail that they had not requested. Investigators found an exceptionally large number of requests for absentee ballots, some 1,600 of which were never returned.

On Friday, the board voted 7-2 to hear evidence by Dec. 21 before deciding whether to certify the result. If the board finds enough problems that could have altered the outcome or cast doubts on the election’s fairness, it could order a new election.

Right now this kerfuffle has generated a great deal of anger and confusion, with some Republicans claiming that the Democrats on the elections board are trying to manipulate the results and some Democrats claiming that Harris’ campaign tried to suppress Democratic votes. Andy Penry, the Democratic chairman of the board, resigned his position last week after Republicans questioned his impartiality, saying he wanted the investigation to continue “free of attempts at distraction and obstruction so that the truth can be revealed.” That’s the one honorable act to come out of this controversy so far.

Attention also has been turned to the May primary, in which Harris surpassed incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger with 96 percent of the absentee votes from Bladen County — a figure that now seems suspicious.

Republican leaders have for some time insisted on the unsubstantiated myth of rampant voter fraud, but they’ve focused primarily on in-person fraud at the voting booth, showing little interest in the possibility of fraud by absentee ballot. Now, when suspicious activity does occur, they’re urging the board to certify the election and move on.

If their concerns about fraud are sincere, they should support this investigation.

The elections board should receive all the resources it to unravel what really happened. Aside from voters’ rights, the state’s reputation is at stake until this mess is straightened out conclusively.

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