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Court dissolves North Carolina elections board with election fraud scandal still under investigation

A years-long court challenge has thrown a House election, uncalled because of fraud allegations, into even more chaos.

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Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

For the past few weeks, the North Carolina elections board has been trying to sort out the results of the state’s Ninth Congressional District election, tainted by allegations of ballot tampering. But a court decision will lead to the board suddenly dissolving on Friday because of a prior legal challenge already underway.

The elections board was supposed to meet on January 11 to review evidence of possible electoral fraud connected to a local operative who worked for the Republican campaign of Mark Harris. But a state court ruled that the board — currently with an even number of Democrats and Republicans, plus one nonpartisan member — must cease operations after previously finding it unconstitutional, part of a legal fight that started in 2016.

So now there is chaos in North Carolina, with the Ninth District race still uncalled and the new Congress being sworn in next week. We’re really not sure what happens next. Michael Bitzer, a well-regarded political observer in the state, was himself at a bit of a loss for words.

Harris, who was ahead by 900 votes in the Election Day tally, had urged the state board to certify the results of his win over Democrat Dan McCready. But the outgoing board had refused to certify his win because of evidence that absentee ballots had been tampered with in the Ninth District. The No. 2 House Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, said Friday that Harris would not be seated given the “well-documented” allegations of election fraud. New members are supposed to be sworn in on January 3.

The court case that killed the board has nothing to do with the Ninth District controversy. Read Bitzer’s blog post for a fuller history, but the short version is this: Republicans, having lost the governorship to Democrat Roy Cooper in 2016, passed legislation in a lame-duck session that, among other things, changed the make-up of the elections board (from one that gave the governor a partisan advantage to one that is evenly divided) in a bid to curb Cooper’s power.

A series of court challenges has found the board, and subsequent versions of it, unconstitutional, though the current board was still allowed in place to oversee the 2018 midterms. But the state court found it unconstitutional again, even as professional staff continue the inquiry into the Ninth District election, and ruled Friday that it must disband.

The GOP-controlled legislature has approved a new version of the board, over Cooper’s veto, but it’s not supposed to assume its duties until January 31. Cooper has said he would appoint an interim board; Republican legislative leaders are saying he can’t.

It seems safe to say this is an unprecedented situation. For now, it appears unlikely Harris will be seated in the House on January 3, and the state investigation is ongoing.

North Carolina will, at some point, get a new elections board — one that, under state law, has broad discretion to call a new Ninth District election if there is enough evidence to cast doubt on the basic fairness of the November election.

What we know — and don’t know — about the alleged ballot tampering

It’s important to remember two things about absentee ballots in North Carolina: Anybody can request one, and at the end of every day before the election, state officials publish a file of which voters requested an absentee ballot by mail and whether they have returned it to be counted.

A campaign could check that file every morning to know how many registered Republican, Democratic, and unaffiliated voters had requested and returned a mail-in ballot.

“From a mechanics point of view, this is a gold mine of information for candidates and their campaign,” Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College, had told me previously.

With that in mind, here is some of what we know so far about the alleged ballot tampering scheme in the North Carolina Ninth Congressional District:

  • Two counties in the district, Bladen and Robeson, had an unusually high number of absentee ballots that were requested but not returned for the 2018 election.
  • Several voters in those counties said in sworn affidavits that an unidentified woman came to their house and collected their absentee ballots. One voter said the woman promised to finish filling out the incomplete ballot for them. Another voter said the ballot was not signed or sealed when the woman took it.
  • In an interview with WSOC, the voter who said she’d selected her choices for only two offices on the ballot before handing it away identified Lisa Britt as the woman who collected her mail-in ballot.
  • Britt is the stepdaughter of Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., a political contractor in the area, BuzzFeed News reported.
  • Dowless was paid by the Harris campaign and was doing absentee work specifically, according to the Charlotte Observer and other affidavits sent to the state elections board. He was previously caught up in allegations regarding absentee ballots in 2016. The Harris campaign still owes $34,000 for absentee ballot work it hired outside contractors for, the New York Times reported.
  • Britt and another woman related to Dowless, Jessica Dowless, told BuzzFeed News they were working for Dowless at an office during the campaign. They described counting the number of Democrats and Republicans who had voted. Absentee ballots were collected and brought to the offices. Dowless was paying his workers cash, even buying one person a car, and some of the staff were using drugs while on the job, per BuzzFeed’s reporting.
  • Britt and Jessica Dowless were two people who witnessed an unusually high number of absentee ballots that were submitted in Bladen County, according to Judd Legum at Popular Information. Jessica said she was asked to witness ballots that had been brought back to Dowless’s offices.
  • We also learned recently that the ballots of some voters who said they gave their absentee ballots to a stranger were never actually submitted to local elections offices.

That is a lot of smoke, and you can see the contours of the scheme: People working to support the Republican campaign were collecting absentee ballots en masse, serving as witnesses for them, and possibly (but this isn’t proven by any means) destroying them.

But we don’t know a few critical pieces of information:

  • What exactly happened to the ballots that were requested but not returned in Bladen and Robeson counties?
  • How much did the Harris campaign know about Dowless’s activities?
  • Was the unusual activity limited to Bladen and Robeson counties, or are absentee ballots from other counties also in doubt?

Without the answers to those questions, it’s hard to say definitively what the precise scheme was — though the new evidence uncovered by WSOC suggests ballots may have been destroyed or discarded. There were already legitimate concerns those ballots were mishandled, given the testimony of ballots that were collected unfinished or unsealed. We can say that much for sure.

But the list of outstanding questions is long. Another one: Were specific voters targeted? Jessica Dowless indicated to BuzzFeed News that ballots for Democratic or black (or both) voters were a focus, but later seemed to walk back that claim.

Bitzer ran the numbers and found something odd about the absentee ballots in Bladen County: Harris would have needed to win every single unaffiliated voter and a good number of Democrats in order to rack up the margins he saw on absentee ballots there.

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