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Democrats will face “bathroom bill” sponsor in House special election called after ballot scandal

The special election in a congressional district roiled by ballot tampering allegations, explained.

Democrat Dan McCready is running unopposed for his party nomination’s in the North Carolina Ninth special House election.
Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS via 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.

Democrats get a chance to win another House seat in North Carolina after a ballot tampering scandal overturned an apparent Republican win last year, and they just found out which Republican they’ll be running against.

In February, after a lengthy investigation, the North Carolina elections board reversed GOP candidate Mark Harris’s apparent 2018 win over Democrat Dan McCready in the Ninth Congressional District and ordered a new special election. The primary for the special election was held on Tuesday, with the two parties selecting their candidates to fill the Ninth vacancy.

McCready, who trailed Harris by fewer than 1,000 votes in November, was unopposed and is the Democratic nominee once again. But Harris, after the embarrassment of the state investigation, didn’t run again. Republicans had to find a new standard-bearer in their bid to hold on to the seat after a humiliating election fraud scandal snatched the win away from them.

During a remarkable hearing in February, state investigators laid out in detail an “unlawful,” “coordinated,” and well-funded plot to tamper with absentee ballots in a US House election that remained uncalled more than three months after Election Day. They established their theory of the case — that a Republican operative contracted by Harris’s campaign, Leslie McCrae Dowless, directed a coordinated scheme to unlawfully collect, falsely witness, and otherwise tamper with absentee ballots — and workers who said they had assisted him in the scheme delivered damning testimony describing their activities.

After four days of evidence indicating fraud and an attempt to conceal the scheme from state investigators, Harris himself told the state election board that he believed a new election should be called. He announced soon afterward that he would not run again, citing health concerns.

State Sen. Dan Bishop, who earned some national notoriety as the sponsor of the so-called “bathroom bill” that barred transgender students from using the facilities of the gender they identify with, won the Republican primary on Tuesday. He had to navigate an 11-person field and get 30 percent of the vote — or else there could have been a second primary election in the fall between the top two Republican vote-getters to choose a nominee. He ended up well over 40 percent to clinch the nom.

In the end, it’s just one seat in the House Democratic majority at stake. But the upcoming election will put some finality on one of the strangest election scandals in recent memory — and give Democrats a chance for a little electoral vengeance.

The special House election in the North Carolina Ninth, explained

Dan McCready is the Democratic candidate again for the general election. He ran unopposed in the primary.

Bishop was the favored Republican to emerge from the primary. He has stature as a state senator, he has raised the most money of any of his competitors, and he got the backing of Club for Growth, the business-minded Washington, DC, power player. Polling showed him consistently well ahead of the other Republicans in the race.

Bishop is known in the state and beyond for the so-called bathroom bill he sponsored and became law. From Vox’s German Lopez:

The move triggered a national firestorm. PayPaland Deutsche Bank pulled expansions into the state that would have created hundreds of jobs. The NBA and NCAA pulled events from the state. Several musicians, such as Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, canceled concerts in the state. A+E Networks and 21st Century Fox said they would reconsider using North Carolina as a filming location in the future. More than 200 major CEOs and business leaders signed a letter asking Gov. McCrory to repeal the law.

By Wired’s estimate, North Carolina as of September had lost $395 million — “more than the GDP of Micronesia” — as a result of the law. And according to the Associated Press, the law will ultimately cost the state at least $3.76 billion over 12 years.

The Ninth is a bit of an oddball district. It covers much of the rural southern parts of the state, but also stretches up into the Charlotte suburbs. There is an appetite for unfettered conservatism: Harris actually defeated incumbent GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger in the primary last year, running as a hard-right social conservative. Bishop is deploying the base conservative playbook, running fear-tinged ads of a Democratic Party gone “crazy” with images of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib criticizing President Donald Trump and calling for his impeachment.

It’s definitely a Republican-leaning district, but McCready has the profile of a Democrat — a “country over party” military vet who wants to clean up politics while protecting the social safety net — who can compete in such a place. He came within 900 votes of beating Harris in a district that Trump had won by 12 points in 2016.

Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss-up. It’s a chance for Democrats to build their majority a little bigger in Trump Country — and a chance for Republicans to try to recover from the embarrassment of Harris’s overturned win.

A ballot tampering scandal led to the new election

Absentee ballots — and some highly questionable, possibly illegal tampering — brought us to this point.

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,” Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, told me previously.

That treasure trove of data would have given Dowless and the people he worked with a detailed picture of how many absentee ballots were coming in every day from Republican, Democratic, and unaffiliated voters — and, by extension, how many absentee ballots they needed from their voters to keep pace with the Democrats. Indeed, some of the workers who testified before the board Monday described Dowless discussing with other operatives how many votes were needed to match the Democratic turnout and informing Harris that the early vote totals looked promising for the Republican.

Investigators working on behalf of the North Carolina election board started February’s hearing by laying out the contours of the ballot tampering scheme, which they say was led by Dowless, and then questioned Lisa Britt and several other women who worked for him. Britt, who was Dowless’s stepdaughter for a time and said she remained close to him, said she believed that she and Dowless had done something wrong. But she insisted more than once that the GOP candidate, Harris, had not been privy to the plot.

Between the opening statement from investigators, Britt’s testimony and corroborating testimony from other witnesses, here is what we learned about the alleged ballot tampering scheme:

  • State investigators said Dowless had used absentee ballot request forms for prior elections to “pre-fill” forms for the 2018 election and sent out workers to find the voters so they could sign the forms and request a ballot — they described this as “Phase One.”
  • The workers allegedly presented the forms to Dowless and received a payment from him, based on how many they brought in, and then sent the forms to the board of elections.
  • At least 780 absentee request forms were allegedly submitted by Dowless or one of his workers.
  • For “Phase Two” of the operation, investigators said, Dowless sent out workers to collect the absentee ballots from voters.
  • Some of the ballots the workers collected had not been signed by witnesses or had not been sealed and the workers again took those ballots to Dowless and received payment in return.
  • Dowless held on to the returned ballots and instructed workers to falsely sign as witnesses for some of the ballots he collected, according to investigators.
  • To avoid raising the suspicions of state officials, the ballots were mailed in small batches, from post offices near the voters’ homes, and the workers made sure that the dates of their signatures and even the ink they used matched that of the voters.
  • Britt affirmed much of the investigators’ case in her testimony, testifying that she had collected ballots, that Dowless had instructed people to sign ballots they had actually not been there to witness, and that she had signed her mother’s name on some ballots so they would not raise suspicion from the state board.
  • Britt testified that if the ballots were left unsealed and there were elections left blank, she would fill in some of the empty offices — again, this was done to avoid arousing suspicion from state election officials. (She did emphasize she had never filled in Harris’s name on a ballot, because voters typically only filled in the congressional races and a few others.)
  • Britt also testified that Dowless had reached out to her shortly before Monday’s hearing and provided her with a statement so she could plead the Fifth during her testimony.

Collecting an absentee ballot for another person and falsely witnessing a ballot — two of the allegations made in the witnesses’ testimony — are violations of state law, according to the state investigators.

Several witnesses, including Harris’s son John, were emphatic that Harris was not aware of the plan. Investigators and Democratic lawyers still grilled one consultant about his failure to identify Dowless’s prior criminal history while he was working for the consultant’s firm on Harris’s campaign. John Harris also told the board that he had warned his father that Dowless might have conducted illegal electioneering in previous elections — but his father hired Dowless anyway.

Dowless was later indicted on three counts of obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice, and two counts of possessing an absentee ballot in violation of state law, according to the Wake County prosecutor’s office. Harris, on the other hand, will watch from the sidelines as other candidates vie for the seat he thought was his.

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