RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) – An illegal absentee-ballot harvesting scheme unfolded in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District in November, state elections officials said during the first session of a days-long hearing over the nation’s last undecided midterm race.
“The evidence that we will provide today will show that a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme operated in the 2018 general election in rural Bladen and Robeson counties,” state elections director Kim Strach said at the start of Monday’s evidentiary hearing.
Republican and former Baptist pastor Mark Harris holds a 905-vote lead over 9th District Democratic candidate Dan McCready in unofficial results for November’s general election, but the North Carolina Board of Elections refused to certify the victor after allegations of absentee and mail-in ballot fraud surfaced.
The hearing in Raleigh this week, which had been delayed for several months, could end as early as Tuesday or as late as Thursday with the board’s decision on whether to certify results or hold a new election for the U.S. House of Representatives seat.
Four of the board’s five members – three Democrats and two Republicans – would need to agree to hold a new election.
The original board initiated an investigation into an unusual amount of absentee-ballot votes garnered by Harris in rural Bladen and Robeson counties, but was later dissolved by court order. A new board was appointed last month by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper.
Witnesses in those counties began to come forward with claims that their unsealed ballots were illegally harvested by people who worked for McCrae Dowless, a political operative hired by Harris’ campaign who is at the center of the investigation.
Some of those involved with Dowless’ efforts and other witnesses appeared in front of the board on Monday.
Through the testimonies of witnesses, most of whom were requested by both Harris and McCready, the elections board will determine this week whether ballot tampering in the 9th District race was significant enough to constitute a new election.
Lisa Britt, a Bladenboro resident and stepdaughter of Dowless, told the elections board on Monday that Dowless paid her to help voters request absentee-ballot forms, fill out their ballots and hand them over to Dowless.
As to where the ballots ended up after Dowless took them, Britt could not confirm.
She said she was paid about $150 for each absentee request form she received from voters.
Britt told the board that she was simply trying to help poor residents of Bladen County vote.
Toward the end of rapid-fire questioning by McCready’s attorney Marc Elias, however, she admitted that she and Dowless had acted wrongfully by harvesting ballots and filling in some unmarked ballots with Republican votes during the get-out-the-vote initiative.
The one innocent party, Britt said, is Harris. She said the Republican candidate was “clueless” about the actions of his hired operative.
Britt said throughout the campaign, Dowless was adamant that the ink his workers used to mark the harvested ballots had to match up and that Britt arrange the postage stamps the right way so the ballots Dowless sent did not “raise any red flags with the elections board.”
In addition to findings of falsified signatures and unsent ballots on Monday, the state’s elections board projected a slide that showed more than 1,000 absentee ballot forms were submitted in Bladen and Robeson counties by Dowless and his paid workers.
That exceeds Harris’ winning margin of 905 votes, supporting arguments that the outcome of the election was affected by tampering.
The Harris committee acknowledged that absentee ballot-harvesting is illegal in North Carolina, but had written in a brief filed with the elections board on Feb. 12 that “illegality in transmission is not necessarily indicative of invalidity of substance.”
“Without evidence to show that the contents of ballots sufficient in number to change the outcome of the election were tampered with, any illegality in how they were delivered should be immaterial to the board’s decision making,” the brief states.
Harris has publicly stated he had no knowledge of the methods Dowless uses to boost votes for candidates.
He later told reporters that he hired Dowless because of his success in getting higher results.
Dowless’ ex-wife, Sandra Dowless, testified Monday that she overheard a phone conversation between Harris and Dowless during the campaign initiative.
She said Harris asked his campaign operative how he knew how many people voted for him during the early-voting window and asked if it was legal to access that information at the local elections board office, as Dowless had told him he had done.
According to his ex-wife, Dowless told Harris during that conversation that he had done nothing illegal.
Dowless appeared at the hearing on Monday as required under his subpoena, but his attorney Cynthia Singletary said he would not testify unless he was compelled to.
After a brief closed session, the board dismissed Dowless and said he would not be compelled to testify because that would grant Dowless immunity from prosecution for anything he shared on the stand.
“This board is unwilling to give any witness here immunity, particularly Mr. Dowless,” said Chairman Bob Cordle, who noted that the board will have to “take negative inferences” from the information it has been given if Dowless refuses to testify willingly.
On Tuesday, the second day of the hearing, Bladen County poll workers Agnes Willis and Coy Mitchell Edwards told the elections board that early voting results for the 9th District race and for the local sheriff were tallied on the Saturday before Election Day, which is before the early-voting polls were closed.
The poll workers who testified Tuesday say they did not observe any third party access the results. Strach, the state elections director, said investigators did not find evidence that anyone else was prematurely informed about the totals.