RALEIGH, N.C. - State election officials in North Carolina said Monday that a political operative for Republican Mark Harris orchestrated a "coordinated, unlawful, and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme" in the 9th Congressional District last year, hiding evidence of the operation as it unfolded and obstructing the state's investigation after the election.
Those explosive charges opened an evidentiary hearing Monday in Raleigh, where the North Carolina elections board began listening to witness testimony to decide whether enough ballots were tampered with to taint the outcome of the 9th District race.
The state board's executive director, Kim Strach, told the five-member board that Leslie McCrae Dowless, a longtime political operative from Bladen County, paid workers to collect absentee ballots from voters, a felony in North Carolina. Dowless and his employees in some cases forged voter and witness signatures and filled out blank or incomplete ballots, Strach said. They operated in Bladen and Robeson counties, she said - submitting as many as 1,249 ballot request forms in the general election. It's unclear exactly how many actual ballots Dowless and his associates turned in.
Strach did not offer evidence that Harris knew of the alleged scheme. Harris personally directed Dowless' hiring despite being warned about his tactics, but he has said repeatedly that he had no knowledge of Dowless' allegedly illegal operations.
The election has been in limbo since November, when the state elections board declined to certify Harris's 905-vote lead, instead launching an investigation into the allegations against Dowless. After it hears the evidence from that investigation this week, the board will decide whether to certify the results or call for a new election.
The investigators painted a portrait Monday of a widespread scheme to illegally handle absentee ballots. They did not offer evidence that enough ballots were tainted to change the narrow outcome of the race - a fact that Republicans seized on as evidence that Harris remains the rightful winner in the last undecided congressional race in the nation.
"While it is disappointing that folks may have violated the law, at this point we are dealing with a limited number of ballots that are nowhere close to bringing the election result into question," Dallas Woodhouse, head of the state GOP, told reporters Monday.
That same evidence prompted Democrats to argue that the overall result is tainted, which can also prompt a revote under state law.
Dowless and his employees went to some lengths to avoid "raising red flags" with election officials, Strach's first witness, Lisa Britt, told the board Monday. They mailed no more than nine or 10 ballots at a time, and they made sure to mail them from the nearest post offices to the voters' homes, even though many of the ballots were signed and witnessed en masse at Dowless' office. They took pains to use the same ink for voter and witness signatures, and to make sure stamps were affixed to the ballot envelopes in a way that didn't reveal a pattern, Britt said.
"I had placed a stamp upside down" on one of the ballot envelopes, Britt testified. "Mr. Dowless fussed at me about that. I guess one or two wouldn't have mattered, but if you've got 10 or 15 coming in that way, they're going to say, 'Now hey, wait a minute.' "
Britt never discarded a ballot, she said, nor did she see Dowless do so.
Another witness, Sandra Dowless, who is Dowless' ex-wife and Britt's mother, said she heard Dowless on the phone before the election, telling Harris he was ahead among absentee voters. When Harris asked Dowless how he knew that, Dowless said he'd looked at data at the county elections board.
The board published evidence in December that the county election staff improperly released early voting results. Strach said Monday that no evidence has emerged that anyone inside the local board released those results to Dowless.
But she also said the investigation has shown serious security lapses in the county election office.
Harris lawyer Alex Dale said Dowless told Harris he was relaying publicly available information.
One element of the controversy on vivid display Monday was the pervasive economic hardship of eastern North Carolina, which was devastated by Hurricane Florence just weeks before the November election - and where many of Dowless' associates were drawn to him because he was kind to people in need.
Kelly Hendrix, who testified that she illegally collected and signed ballots for Dowless, wept on the witness stand as she described how she began helping him after he had given her rides to her job at a fast food restaurand. Dowless occasionally gave her gas money while she helped him collect ballots, she said.
Hendrix also offered a glimpse of what a small community Bladen County is, saying that most of the people from whom she collected ballots were "pretty much my in-laws, my boyfriend's family, my family."
In a courtroom that the North Carolina State Bar usually used for disciplinary hearings, spectators, witnesses and more than a dozen attorneys mixed with the principals in the case, including Dowless and many of those who worked for him in the alleged scheme.
There were few fireworks, but Strach's assertion that Dowless had sought to interfere with the investigation generated attention, including a note Strach produced that Britt said Dowless gave to her, instructing her to assert her Fifth Amendment rights and not answer questions at Monday's hearing.
McCready's lawyer, prominent Democrat Marc Elias, drew a rebuke from board Chairman Bob Cordle for not giving Britt enough time to answer questions before throwing out a new one.
Harris watched the hearing from the front of the room, occasionally jotting down notes and at times turning to take in the reactions of the audience. Dowless, sitting in the back of the room with his legal counsel, sat erect and at times strained to hear the witness testimony.
At the end of the day, Strach surprised the room by calling Dowless to testify, but his lawyer, Cynthia Singletary said he would not testify without immunity. Cordle told her that the board policy allowed it to draw an an adverse inference about Dowless' potential guilt from his decision not to testify.
The investigation has refocused the national debate about election fraud, which has typically featured Republicans, led by President Donald Trump, talking about ID laws and criminal prosecutions, while Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to hinder ballot access and intimidate voters who typically vote Democratic.
This time it is Democrats seeking to show that fraud affected the outcome of a federal election, while Republicans are trying to save the narrow projected victory of their candidate.
The state elections board requires a supermajority of four votes to call for a new election. With three Democrats and two Republicans, the board will not have the votes to take any action if its members vote along partisan lines. That would turn attention to Congress, which also has the power to order a new election.
One seat in the hearing room Monday was labeled "U.S. House counsel."
Britt, the first witness, declared on the stand that Harris knew nothing.
"I think you've got one innocent person in this thing who hasn't done anything wrong and who is getting a really bad rap in all of this, and that's Mr. Harris," she said.
Dowless' lawyer, Cynthia Singletary, told reporters that Britt's testimony "is not true." Asked whether Dowless directed illegal ballot-harvesting, she responded, "Hell no!"
Strach told the board that the staff deployed four investigators in the 9th District, interviewing 142 voters and 30 witnesses and examining thousands of subpoenaed campaign and phone records. She said Dowless paid his workers $125 for every 50 absentee ballots they collected.
Dowless, 63, was investigated in 2016, when he helped deliver an overwhelming share of the mail-in vote in Bladen County for a different Republican congressional candidate, Todd Johnson. The 9th District stretches along the South Carolina border from Charlotte to rural, eastern North Carolina.
It's unclear whether Dowless will agree to testify or decline to do so to avoid self-incrimination, as he did at a hearing over similar irregularities more than two years ago.
Also on the witness lists, among dozens of others: Harris; McCready; North Carolina GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse; and Andy Yates, the GOP consultant who worked for Harris and hired Dowless at Harris' direction.
A lawyer for Yates, Mark Jones, said Yates will testify if he receives a subpoena to do so. North Carolina law allows the state board to compel witnesses to testify but requires it to grant immunity when it does.
In her testimony, Britt said she's not "100 percent sure" but she believes Yates knew of Dowless' ballot-tampering scheme. Yates has denied knowing of any illegal ballot collection.
The board has planned for three days of hearings this week, but gave no sign by the end of the day Monday whether the testimony would wrap up by then.
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