State election officials said a political operative for Republican Mark Harris orchestrated a complex scheme to illegally collect and falsify absentee ballots last year, hiding evidence of the plot 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 State Board of Elections began hearing witness testimony to decide whether enough ballots were tampered with to taint the outcome of the 9th Congressional District race.
The board has the power to call for a new election or certify the November results. According to unofficial results in the nation’s last undecided congressional race, Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes.
The state board’s executive director, Kim Strach, told the five-member board Monday that Leslie McCrae Dowless, a longtime political operative from Bladen County, paid workers to collect hundreds of absentee ballots from voters, a felony in North Carolina. Dowless and his employees in some cases forged voter signatures and witness signatures and filled out blank or incomplete ballots, Strach said. They operated in both Bladen and Robeson counties, submitting as many as 1,249 ballots overall in the general election.
And they took great lengths to avoid “raising red flags” with election officials, Strach’s first witness, Lisa Britt, said. They mailed no more than nine or 10 ballots at a time, and they made sure to mail them from the post offices nearest 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 ensure 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.’ ”
Strach did not say that Harris knew of the scheme.
The election has been in limbo since November when evidence first surfaced that Dowless, whom Harris hired to lead his absentee-ballot program and other get-out-the-vote operations, had collected ballots illegally in Bladen County.
The allegations have prompted Democrats to demand a new election while Republicans have called repeatedly for Harris to be sworn in, citing the absence of public evidence that fraud affected the outcome or that Harris knew of the scheme.
The investigation has refocused the national debate about election fraud. Republicans, led by President Trump, have alleged widespread voter fraud and advocated strict ID laws and criminal prosecutions. Democrats have argued that the kind of in-person fraud Republicans have targeted is rare, accusing their opponents of trying to hinder ballot access and intimidate voters who typically vote Democratic. The North Carolina case reverses those roles in some ways.
Adding to the uncertainty, 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 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.”
Two big questions remained unanswered after the first few hours of testimony: Did Harris, 52, an evangelical pastor from suburban Charlotte, know about the alleged scheme? And were enough ballots affected by fraud to change the outcome of the election?
Harris personally directed Dowless’ hiring despite being warned about his tactics but has said repeatedly that he had no knowledge of Dowless’ allegedly illegal operations.
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.
With that declaration, the board announced a lunch break. The campaigns’ lawyers will get a chance to question Britt after the break.
Dowless’s lawyer, Cynthia Singletary, told reporters that Britt’s testimony “is not true.” Asked if Dowless directed illegal ballot-harvesting, she responded, “Hell no!”
About 150 people filled the hearing room — a courtroom at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh — many of them lawyers for the campaigns and their associates.
Election officials said it was unlikely that the board would reach a decision Monday, with dozens of witnesses still to come.
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. And she said he tried to obstruct the investigation after the fact. She showed a TV interview with Britt in which she sat in Dowless’ kitchen and said no one had broken any laws. Britt said Dowless, who was present for that interview, had instructed she sit for it. He also instructed her to testify Monday that he had done nothing wrong, she said.
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.
Former Rep. Robert Pittenger, whom Harris defeated in the Republican primary last June, told The Post in December that Dowless approached him in 2016 but he declined to hire him.
“I just knew I didn’t want to be involved with him,” Pittenger said. “Dowless’ efforts were widely known, and we did share our concerns with several people.”
Since opening the most recent probe late last year, investigators have published reams of evidence and affidavits on the state board’s website, including examples of absentee ballots allegedly collected and turned in by Dowless or his crew.
The evidence has not shown that enough ballots were tampered with to change the outcome of the election, which has prompted the Harris campaign to assume that such evidence doesn’t exist.
Investigators are likely to address whether anyone inside the Bladen County Board of Elections was aware of the scheme and participated in it — a prospect that would allow the board to declare the results generally tainted, which state law allows as grounds for calling for a new election.
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.
Both parties drew their battle lines ahead of the hearing.
In a brief filed this past week with the state board, the McCready campaign, represented by prominent Democratic lawyer Marc Elias, argued that the alleged ballot tampering taints the entire election and warrants calling for a new one.
“Evidence of ballot tampering performed by Harris’s handpicked operative casts a cloud of suspicion on all the [absentee] ballots cast in the election,” the McCready brief states, and is “more than sufficient” to justify calling for a new election.
Harris’ team, in turn, will argue for certification, Freedman said.
“With as many investigators as have been down there, reporters and our own investigation, it’s hard for me to believe there are matters that will arise that have not already been exposed,” Freedman said.
Still, there was evidence of caution on both sides. The GOP has claimed widespread fraud to justify strict new voter identification laws and far-reaching crackdowns on noncitizen voting; some in the party have noted the potential contradiction of downplaying evidence of the alleged election-fraud scheme in Bladen.
And some Democrats in Washington said they are grappling with the risk of overreaching if they call for a new election without overwhelming evidence that ballot-tampering was widespread enough to affect the outcome in November.
McCready, 35, argued in his brief that if the state board fails to call for a new election, the U.S. House should then do so. But not all Democrats on the Hill relish that opportunity.
“House leaders are cognizant of how far they should push to set new precedent here,” said a senior Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill who was not authorized to speak publicly. “But they also recognize that this is a potentially unprecedented situation, if the state board can neither certify the election nor order a new one.”
Perhaps the star witness could be Dowless himself, though it’s unknown if he 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 that while she’s not “100% sure,” she believes Yates knew of Dowless’ ballot-tampering scheme. Yates has denied knowing of any illegal ballot collection.
Amy Gardner writes for the Washington Post.