And still the story isn’t over.

The State Board of Elections’ investigation into the Nov. 6 general election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District produced troubling revelations, a dramatic reversal by Republican candidate Mark Harris, who had declared victory back in November, and ultimately, what seems the right outcome. Voters in the 9th District will soon be going to the polls for a new election, and Harris says he will not be on the ballot.

Harris declared victory in November after he apparently won the 9th District seat over Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. After the state elections board began raising questions about voting irregularities and wouldn’t certify the election results, Harris sued to try to force elections officials to certify his win. But during the third day of an elections board hearing that produced considerable, convincing evidence of fraudulently obtained and altered absentee ballots, he abruptly called for a new election.

The people in the district could not have faith in the integrity of the election results now, Harris said. And he was right. The board voted unanimously for a new election.

But there’s more.

For starters, Leslie McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County man who worked as a political consultant in Harris’ campaign, has been arrested, indicted by a grand jury on charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice and possession of absentee ballots. The Wake County District Attorney’s Office says that the charges have to do with irregularities surrounding absentee ballots in Bladen County dating back to the 2016 general election as well as to the 2018 primary.

Stay tuned for more details to emerge as the criminal investigation continues into Dowless’ activities in the 2018 general election.

Also among the hearing’s revelations was that there had been complaints and allegations about irregularities in Bladen County’s elections years before this investigation into Harris’ narrow win over McCready. That doesn’t inspire confidence in the integrity of elections in Bladen.

Isn’t it interesting that amid all the recent concern among Republicans in Raleigh about the dangers of voter fraud in the state, few have seemed worried about absentee ballots? That’s true even though the Republican incumbent, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, narrowly lost to Harris in the GOP primary in May 2018 — and Harris received the lion’s share of absentee votes.

The whole sordid episode also raises concerns that absentee ballot fraud could be a problem elsewhere in the state. Apparently, it was only too easy to tamper with them in Bladen County. Why not somewhere else? Are local boards of elections doing all they can to guard against such fraud? And if complaints and allegations surface, do district attorneys and U.S. attorneys take them seriously enough?

Having confidence that our elections are free and fair, that everyone who is eligible has a chance to vote, and that no one tampers with ballots — those things are at the heart of American democracy.

We already have to worry about foreign interference and social media manipulation. And already we have to worry about gerrymandering and about efforts to intimidate and turn away vulnerable voters.

We should not have to worry as well about unscrupulous political operatives tampering with absentee ballots.

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