At a North Carolina hearing Monday, investigators started laying out in detail an “unlawful,” “coordinated,” and “well-funded” plot to tamper with absentee ballots in a US House election that remains uncalled more than three months after Election Day — finally bringing some clarity to one of the most bizarre election scandals in recent memory.

State investigators established their theory of the case — that a Republican operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, directed a coordinated scheme to unlawfully collect, falsely witness, and otherwise tamper with absentee ballots — and a worker who says she assisted him in the scheme delivered explosive testimony over several hours.

Monday’s hearing ended with Dowless, under the advice of his attorney, refusing to testify before the election board. They will meet again Tuesday morning to continue the hearing.

The board — made up of three Democrats and two Republicans — finally reconvened after Gov. Roy Cooper named new members amid an unrelated legal dispute. They have started reviewing the evidence in the case and then they are expected to decide what course to take at the end of the hearing, which could last for several days. The Harris campaign is urging the elections board to certify his win; Democrat Dan McCready’s campaign is asking the board to call for a new election.

More than a month into the new Congress, there is still no United States representative from North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District. North Carolina’s election board refused to certify Republican Mark Harris’s apparent victory over McCready because of the evidence that absentee ballots were tampered with.

“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.”

What we’ve learned about the alleged ballot tampering at Monday’s hearing

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 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. Harris beat McCready by fewer than 1,000 votes, going by the Election Day count.

Investigators working on behalf of the North Carolina election board started Monday’s hearing by laying out the contours of the ballot tampering scheme, which they say was led by Dowless, and then questioned Lisa Britt. 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 and Britt’s testimony, here is what we learned about the alleged scheme at Monday’s hearing:

  • 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 were not signed by witnesses or had not been sealed — both in violation of state law — 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 her to sign ballots she 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, Dowless’s workers 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.)
  • 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.

Britt will be cross-examined on Monday afternoon, and the hearing is expected to last at least into Tuesday, with more witnesses to come. One point that seems likely to keep coming up: Britt’s emphatic avowal that Harris was not aware of the plot (though state investigators said that he had contracted Dowless through an outside firm).

State investigators also said they had not been able to conclude whether early voting numbers were improperly shared with third parties, one of the other allegations that had been made in the sworn affidavits that jump-started the fraud scandal.

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 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 benefited 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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