What to do about that empty N.C. chair in Congress

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When the new Congress convened at noon Thursday, there was 434 U.S. House members there, and one empty chair. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and the House should ensure an election is held as soon as possible to fill that chair.

The seat in question belongs to the people of North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. Starting Thursday, they will be deprived of representation due to probable absentee ballot fraud that marred November’s election.

Things have only gotten messier in the weeks since then and there’s no easy way out.

The N.C. elections board was investigating voting irregularities in the 9th District’s Bladen and Robeson counties. But a panel of state judges dissolved the board last week, enforcing an earlier finding that the board’s structure was unconstitutional unrelated to the 9th District probe.

The legislature passed a law creating a new elections board effective Jan. 31. That leaves us here at the beginning of January with no elections board even as North Carolina is the national focal point for its questionable election.

We agree with elections law expert Gerry Cohen and others that with the law creating the elections board ruled unconstitutional, the state reverts back to the law in place before the unconstitutional law was passed.

Here’s the approach we think is best:

Gov. Cooper should appoint an interim elections board of five members, three of his fellow Democrats and two Republicans. If Republicans refuse to put anyone up for that role, Cooper should name three Democrats, who would constitute a quorum. They could hold a hearing on the 9th District that had been planned for Jan. 11.

Without a fourth vote, that board could not call for a new election. But it could issue findings from its months-long investigation.

The U.S. House should then use those findings to force a new 9th District election, if the evidence suggests the election was tainted, as it surely will.

Incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has advocated just a new General Election, which might help Democrats. That would be a mistake; the 9th District Republican primary is under as big a cloud as the General Election and a new one should be held, as required by a state law passed last month.

Our suggested approach is not ideal, but consider the alternatives. The state could do nothing for a month, waiting for the new elections board law to kick in. That would just delay the inevitable and lengthen the time 9th District residents have no member of Congress.

Or the U.S. House could act, either quickly or after its own investigation. The former would not incorporate the state’s findings, and the latter would delay things considerably.

Let’s get a new elections board in place and resolve this mess promptly.

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