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NC elections chief details 'coordinated, unlawful absentee ballot' scheme in 9th District
A North Carolina political operative paid workers to collect absentee ballots and falsify witness certifications for those ballots, the state's chief elections official said Monday.
The stunning remarks by North Carolina State Elections Director Kim Strach at a hearing of the state Board of Elections offered the most detailed description to date of the breadth of a months-long investigation into alleged fraud in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District.
Republican Mark Harris currently leads Democrat Dan McCready in the race by just 905 votes. But the allegations of fraud and a protracted fight over the composition of the state elections board has left the outcome of the race in limbo for months.
Democrats have called for a new election in the 9th District, arguing that the alleged fraud has marred the current election results.
Meanwhile, Republicans have called on state elections officials to certify Harris as the winner. They argue that the alleged fraud did not affect enough ballots to swing the results of the election.
"Dr. Harris received 420 absentee by mail votes in Bladen County. He received only 259 absentee by mail votes in Robeson County. Together, that is 679 votes," Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, said in a memo to reporters on Friday.
"His victory margin is 905 votes. Even if all of his [absentee by mail] ballots were tainted, his 905-vote margin would stand."
In her opening remarks, Strach detailed an alleged ballot-tampering scheme operated by Leslie McCrae Dowless, a political operative in rural Bladen County who she said hired workers to falsify absentee ballot request forms, collect absentee ballots and falsify witness certifications in an apparent violation of state election laws.
The alleged scheme was coordinated and well resourced, Strach said. She also said that security at the elections office in Bladen County, where some of the alleged ballot tampering took place, had been insufficient.
Dowless allegedly paid workers $150 for every 50 absentee ballot request forms they collected and $125 for every 50 absentee ballots collected, Strach said. What's more, Red Dome, a consulting firm hired by Harris's campaign, paid Dowless $131,275 between July 3, 2017, and Nov. 7, 2018.
Strach said that the account of the alleged scheme was based on interviews with 142 voters and 30 witnesses. Investigators also subpoenaed thousands of financial and phone records as part of the probe, she said.
Lisa Britt, Dowless's former stepdaughter who described the long-time operative as a "father figure," was the first witness called to the stand on Monday. She said that during the congressional race, Dowless paid her to collect absentee ballots, including ballots that were not signed by witnesses.
Britt also acknowledged that she had filled out incomplete absentee ballots in favor of Republican candidates. She said that she delivered the ballots she collected directly to either Dowless's office or his home.
She also said she voted in the November election, despite being on probation for a felony conviction, a violation of North Carolina state law. Dowless, she said, offered instructions on how to do that.
Dowless also instructed her to take her 5th Amendment right to not self-incriminate during her testimony, she said. Britt read a statement allegedly provided by Dowless stating that she had not done anything wrong, but saying that she was "taking the 5th Amendment because I don't have an attorney and I feel like you will try to trip me up."
It remained unclear on Monday what - or whether - Harris knew about the alleged ballot-tampering scheme. He is expected to be called to testify before the end of the hearing, which is scheduled to continue on Tuesday and could stretch into Wednesday.
In her testimony, Britt said that she believed that Andy Yates, a top consultant for Harris's campaign, was aware of the alleged scheme, though she noted that she was not "100 percent" certain.
But she insisted that Harris was unaware of any wrongdoing and was not involved in Dowless's alleged operation.
"I think you've got one innocent person in this whole thing who had no clue what was going on and he's the one getting the really bad end of the deal here, and that's Mr. Mark Harris," Britt said.
Asked by Harris's attorney, David Freedman, whether it would "be fair to Dr. Harris to punish him for your conduct," Britt replied: "No, sir."
Sandra Dowless, the political operative's ex-wife, said in her testimony, however, that she had overheard her former husband telling Harris in a phone call that he had gone to the elections board and reviewed how many absentee ballots had been returned ahead of the Election Day.
"'Is that legal?'" she recalled Harris asking Dowless in the conversation. She said that her ex-husband assured Harris that "wouldn't do anything illegal."
Another witness, Kelly Hendrix, told a similar story to Britt's on Monday. She said that she was paid to collect absentee ballot request forms and absentee ballots, and that she would deliver them directly to Dowless.
Hendrix, who said she began helping Dowless with his absentee ballot operation in 2016, insisted, however, that the absentee ballots that she collected were sealed when she received them and that she never assisted anyone in filling out their ballots.
At least four of the five members of the North Carolina State Board of Elections would have to vote to order a new election in the 9th District. The board is made up of three Democrats and two Republicans.
Regardless of whether state election officials decide to certify Harris as the winner of the race, House members could decide to challenge the election results and investigate the fraud allegations - a move that could lead lawmakers to call for a new election.
Updated at 5:11 p.m.