NC Election Board Weighs Election Re-Do02/19 06:52
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- The country's last undecided congressional election
was marred by falsified signatures, disappearing documents and blank ballots
that were filled in by people hired by the Republican candidate, North Carolina
elections officials said.
The state elections board could decide as early as Tuesday whether possibly
criminal ballot fraud was unfortunate but tolerable, or whether to order a new
election in the 9th congressional district.
A political operative hired by Republican Mark Harris led "a coordinated,
unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme" in last year's
general election in rural Bladen and Robeson counties, which are part of the
congressional district, state elections director Kim Strach said Monday.
The operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., was called to testify Monday, but
his attorney refused to put him on the stand without legal protection against
prosecution for events he described. The board refused.
The first of what could be a days-long hearing produced Dowless' workers
testifying that they sometimes filled in votes on unfinished, unsealed mail-in
ballots. But there was scant evidence that Harris knew about it or even
Harris narrowly leads Democrat Dan McCready in unofficial results. But the
race wasn't certified in November after rumors of Dowless' operation focusing
on mail-in ballots. The elections board is expected to either declare a winner
or order a new election after the hearing.
Dowless was hired to produce votes for Harris and Bladen County Sheriff Jim
McVickers, but his methods last year included paying people to visit potential
voters who had received absentee ballots and getting them to hand over those
ballots, whether completed or not, Dowless worker Lisa Britt testified.
It's illegal in North Carolina for anyone other than a guardian or close
family member to handle a voter's ballot because of the risk that it could be
altered before being counted.
While Dowless and Harris' main campaign consultant were in constant contact,
she didn't have any indication Harris knew about the operation, Britt said.
"I think Mr. Harris was completely clueless as to what was going on," Britt
Britt testified she collected about three dozen sometimes unfinished ballots
and handed them to Dowless, who kept them at his home and office for days or
longer before they were turned in, said Britt, whose mother was formerly
married to Dowless. While the congressional and sheriff's races were almost
always marked by voters who turned in unsealed ballots, Britt said she would
fill in down-ballot local races --- favoring Republicans --- to prevent local
elections board workers from suspecting Dowless' activities.
In one case, Britt said she picked up the completed ballot of an elderly
black woman. A week later, she was told to return the woman's ballot after a
local black empowerment group complained to Dowless that she was a voter they'd
recruited. Britt said she could not explain why Dowless would still have the
ballot in his possession rather than turning it in to the local elections board.
Dowless paid local people like Britt $125 for every 50 mail-in ballots they
collected in Bladen and Robeson counties and turned in to him, Strach said.
The operation's scope allowed Dowless to collect nearly $84,000 in
consulting fees over five months leading into last year's general election,
said Strach, adding that in addition to reviewing financial and phone records,
investigators questioned 142 voters in the south-central North Carolina
Four of the five members on the elections board --- composed of three
Democrats and two Republicans --- would need to agree a new election is
If that doesn't happen, McCready's lawyers said state officials should send
their findings to the Democrat-dominated U.S. House and let it decide whether
Harris should be seated --- arguing that the U.S. Constitution gives the House
authority over the elections and qualifications of its members.