The disputed race in North Carolina's 9th congressional district race may be headed for a re-do after investigators and witnesses detailed an illegal ballot fraud scheme in a Monday hearing.
After the November election, Republican Mark Harris led Democrat Dan McCready by about 900 votes. But the North Carolina elections board refused to certify the result over numerous allegations of ballot fraud in two rural counties.
After months of investigation, state elections chief Kim Strach said during the first day of hearings into the apparent fraud that the board has evidence of a “coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme operated during the 2018 general election in Bladen and Robeson counties.”
At the heart of the scheme is Leslie McCrae Dowless, a Republican operative who was previously convicted of fraud. During the hearing, investigators said Dowless was paid $130,000 by the political consulting firm Red Dome, which was founded by top Harris adviser Andy Yates. Dowless then paid workers to collect unfilled absentee ballots and use the ballots to vote for Harris and other Republican candidates.
Lisa Britt, whose mother was previously married to Dowless in the 1990s, testified that she was among the workers paid by Dowless to collect absentee ballot request forms and absentee ballots. She said Dowless provided the workers with specific instructions on how to fill in the ballots, where to mail them, and how many to mail at one time to avoid triggering any alarms, The Raleigh News & Observer reported.
“He fussed at me for putting on stamps upside down,” Britt said. “We didn’t want to throw up a red flag.”
Another witness, Kelly Hendrix, testified that she also collected ballots and submitted them to Dowless.
Britt said that Dowless also tried to influence her testimony as recently as days before her appearance. Dowless refused to testify at the hearing unless he was given immunity, which the board declined to do.
“I do feel I have done wrong,” Britt said, though at another point she noted that Harris, the Republican candidate, may be the "one innocent person" in the scheme because she believed he did not know what was happening.
“I think Mr. Harris was completely clueless as to what was going on,” she said.
But McCready campaign attorney Marc Elias disagreed, telling reporters after the hearing, “You heard direct evidence of a scheme to deprive voters of the 9th Congressional District of fair balloting and you heard that that direct evidence winds up doorstep and the telephone of Republican candidate Mark Harris.”
Harris won the absentee-by-mail vote in Bladen County, the only county where he won a majority of such votes. In the Republican primary earlier in 2018, Harris also received 437 of 456 absentee-by-mail votes in his narrow victory over incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger. But in 2016, when Dowless worked for Republican Todd Johnson in the primary against both Harris and Pittenger, it was Johnson who got 98 percent of all absentee-by-mail votes in Bladen County. Thousands of absentee ballots that were requested in the county went unreturned. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said last year that more than 1,000 absentee ballots may have been destroyed as part of the scheme.
Harris admitted to hiring Dowless but claimed he did not believe the operative was doing anything illegal. The Washington Post has reported that Harris was warned about Dowless’ fraud during his 2016 primary bid and hired him despite his shady history, or perhaps because of it. Harris “personally directed” the hiring of Dowless, the outlet reported, “despite warnings about Dowless’s criminal record and Dowless’s own public testimony describing questionable election tactics.”
While the evidence of ballot fraud is overwhelming, it is still unclear what comes next.
Republicans have argued that Democrats have to prove that McCready would have won the election if not for the fraud, but that's not what the law requires.
“The burden is on McCready to prove absent the irregularities he likely would have won the race. The burden is not on Mr. Harris or the NCGOP to prove the election system is perfect. It is not, never has been, and never will be,” said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party.
But state law says that a new election can be called by the elections board if any “irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.”
The News & Observer reported that some expect the bipartisan board to deadlock on a decision about a new election, which would requires the backing of four of the panel’s five members. Republicans say that Harris would have to be certified as the winner if the board is deadlocked. But in fact the House of Representatives, which now has a Democratic majority, would get the final say over whether to seat Harris.