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North Carolina’s election fraud scandal is heading toward a dramatic resolution

The ballot tampering scandal in the Ninth District reaches a climax with this week’s hearing.

Republican Mark Harris, pictured, led Democrat Dan McCready in the North Carolina Ninth District race, but hasn’t been seated because of election fraud allegations. A state board is expected to resolve the impasse at a Monday hearing.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
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.

More than a month into the new Congress, there is still no United States Representative from North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District. A state hearing starting Monday should finally bring some clarity to one of the most bizarre election scandals in recent memory.

North Carolina’s election board has so far refused to certify Republican Mark Harris’s apparent victory over Democrat Dan McCready by less than 1,000 votes because of evidence that absentee ballots were tampered with. A Republican political operative hired by Harris has been implicated in running a still-nebulous scheme by press reports and sworn affidavits.

On Monday, the election board — made up of three Democrats and two Republicans — will reconvene after Gov. Roy Cooper named new members amid an unrelated legal dispute. They will review the evidence in the case and then are expected to decide what course to take at the end of the hearing, which could last more than one day. The Harris campaign is urging the elections board to certify his win; the McCready campaign is asking the board to call for a new election.

“They have two options at the end of the hearing. One is to certify Mark Harris’s win. Second is to call for a new election,” says Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College who has been following the controversy.

Under state law, the board can call a new election if the basic fairness of the election is tainted. It does not appear to matter whether the number of votes in dispute would have been enough to swing the outcome. Election board chair Bob Cordle, a Democrat, noted in a recent interview that in prior races in which a new election was called, the margin did not make a difference.

“They did not have to decide that the outcome would have been overturned,” Cordle told WFAE’s Inside Politics. “We obviously want to have a fair election.”

House Democrats very publicly resolved in December not to seat Harris because of the fraud allegations. A leadership aide told me last week that, given the evidence in the case, they do not anticipate the board will certify the Republican’s win.

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’ve also learned 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 or writing in votes.

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 most recent 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.

The number of not-returned absentee ballots in the Ninth was unusually high

Most of the attention has focused on two counties in the Ninth: Bladen and Robeson, in the southeast corner of the state near the South Carolina border. Notably, each of the affidavits provided by Democratic attorneys involved voters in Bladen County, and one man said that Dowless himself had stated he was working on absentee ballots for Harris in the county.

Bitzer documented the unusual trend in those counties: They had a much higher rate of mail-in absentee ballots that were requested but not returned, compared to other counties in the Ninth District.

Michael Bitzer/Old North State Politics

And at the district level, according to Bitzer’s calculations, the Ninth had a much higher rate of unreturned absentee ballots than any other district in North Carolina.

Michael Bitzer/Old North State Politics

Bitzer also found that the share of votes Harris received from mail-in absentee ballots in Bladen was remarkably high. It was the only county where the Republican won the mail-in absentee vote, earning 61 percent to McCready’s 38 percent.

Strangely, though, based on the partisan breakdown of absentee ballots accepted in the county, Harris would have needed to win not only all of the Republican ballots but also almost every single ballot from voters not registered with either party and a substantial number of Democratic ballots as well.

Michael Bitzer/Old North State Politics

Much like the sworn affidavits, there isn’t an outright allegation of wrongdoing to be found here. But the suggestion is pretty clear: Harris seems to have benefitted from an oddly high share of votes in these two counties, where an operative of his was allegedly working, and where a number of voters said that their absentee ballots had been collected from them in a highly unusual manner.

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