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Judge Rejects NC GOP Victory Claim     01/23 06:16

   RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A North Carolina judge ruled Tuesday that there 
weren't grounds for him to step in and declare victory for the Republican in 
the country's last undecided congressional race amid an investigation into 
whether his lead was boosted by illegal vote-collection tactics.

   Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway rejected a lawsuit by Republican Mark 
Harris insisting he be declared the winner. Harris narrowly leads Democrat Dan 
McCready in the 9th district contest, but the numbers have been clouded by 
doubt due to allegations that mail-in ballots could have been altered or 
discarded by a Harris subcontractor.

   Harris' attorneys asked the judge to step in because they said the district 
in south-central North Carolina urgently needs a representative in Washington, 
D.C. The Republican's attorneys also argued they were forced into court because 
the now-disbanded elections board was supposed to have declared him the winner 
in November, delayed acting to sort out ballot-fraud allegations, and missed 
all the deadlines specified in state law to certify him as the winner.

   An unrelated lawsuit led to the old elections board disbanding last month, 
but the staff's investigation into accusations of ballot fraud by an operative 
hired by Harris' campaign continues. A revamped elections board will officially 
be in place as of Jan. 31.

   It is that board that "will be in the best position to weigh the factual and 
legal issues" to conclude the rightful winner, Ridgeway said after two hours of 
arguments. "The court concludes that the petitioners have not shown a clear 
right to the extraordinary relief" Harris requested.

   Democrats who this month took control of the U.S. House said they wouldn't 
seat Harris without an investigation into the allegations, and suggested they 
may examine the dispute no matter what the state elections board does.

   Lawyers for McCready and the state elections board wanted the lawsuit 
dismissed and for the incoming elections board to ensure a completed 
investigation.

   McCready attorney Marc Elias, who represents Democrats around the country in 
election disputes, said some states such as Florida have laws placing a 
priority on elections being determined quickly, while other states such as 
Minnesota allow more time for resolutions that conclusively decide the rightful 
winner.

   "North Carolina has made a judgment to be a get-it-done-right state. In 
doing so, it has set forth a very, very clear set of deadlines that are put on 
pause, or on hiatus, pending a protest," Elias said.

   North Carolina's since-disbanded elections board twice made bipartisan 
decisions in late November to withhold finalizing the Harris-McCready election 
under a provision in state law that allows it to act if it suspects balloting 
was tainted by some type of fraud or corruption.

   Harris' lawyers said he and his wife have submitted to interviews by 
investigators and his campaign has turned over documents to ensure the 
investigation is done right and his name can be cleared. But the elections 
board also can't operate on its own timetable, attorney Alex Dale said.

   "They cannot do this open-endedly," he said.

   The questions surround a political operative in rural Bladen County, Leslie 
McCrae Dowless, who worked for Harris' campaign at the candidate's insistence. 
Dowless has declined interviews. A statement by his attorney said he is 
innocent of any wrongdoing.

   More than a dozen witnesses signed sworn affidavits alleging that Dowless or 
people working for him collected incomplete and unsealed ballots from voters. 
It's illegal for anyone other than a close relative or guardian to take a 
person's ballot.

   Harris, the former Baptist pastor of a Charlotte megachurch, said he didn't 
learn until late last month that the state elections board investigated Dowless 
and others potentially involved in ballot fraud in 2016.

   "I would later learn that obviously there had been things that should have 
been looked into, but everything that had been looked into had come out just 
perfectly fine," Harris said in one of several television interviews he 
conducted earlier this month. Neither Harris nor McCready have responded to 
interview requests from The Associated Press.

   The state elections board, which has no power to prosecute election cases, 
forwarded its evidence from the 2016 election to the federal prosecutor's 
office in Raleigh, which has not said whether it will pursue charges.

   McCready, an Iraq War veteran and head of a solar-energy investment firm, 
said last week that Harris should be prosecuted if he participated in election 
misconduct.


(KA)

 
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