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Judge refuses to certify GOP victory in contested North Carolina Congress race

The House remains at least one member short as a state investigation continues.

President Trump Holds Campaign Rally At The Bojangles Coliseum In Charlotte, North Carolina
Mark Harris in October 2018.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images
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.

A hotly contested North Carolina congressional seat, dripping in allegations of election fraud, is not yet over after a judge ruled that an investigation must continue.

The campaign for Republican Mark Harris, who was at last count ahead by fewer than 1,000 votes, asked a North Carolina judge to intervene in a state investigation and certify Harris as the winner, but Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway said in a ruling Tuesday that ”certification is not appropriate until the investigation into the protest is concluded by final decision.” The state has yet to conclude its investigation into allegations that the Harris campaign tampered with absentee ballots.

Complicating matters is a separate fight over the legality of the state elections board itself, which was dissolved in December. Ridgeway’s ruling keeps the investigation going, overseen by career staff, while state lawmakers attempt to reconstitute the elections board.

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

At stake is the election between Harris and Democrat Dan McCready. There were an unusual number of absentee ballots requested and not returned to be counted. Plus, news reports indicate Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., a person whom Harris hired to work on absentee ballots, had been allegedly coordinating a campaign to collect absentee ballots.

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 wake up every morning and check that file 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,” Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College, 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 News’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.

Joe Bruno, a reporter for the local news outlet WSOC, added another piece to the puzzle. Three voters testified in sworn affidavits that they had filled out their absentee ballots and then given them to a person who came to their house and promised to deliver the ballots to state officials to be counted. Bruno checked public voting records and found that none of those voters had actually had their ballots counted.

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 and serving as witnesses for them. Some of these ballots do not appear to have been returned to state elections official as they were supposed to be.

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

  • What exactly did happen to those ballots?
  • 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 that 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.

But again, that data gestures at impropriety but doesn’t provide a smoking gun. That’s what we’re waiting on.

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