By Gabriella Borter
(Reuters) – A political consultant told North Carolina’s elections board on Wednesday he was not aware an operative working for their Republican candidate had devised an unlawful absentee ballot operation that investigators say was an effort to sway a close congressional race.
The state probe into the disputed Nov. 6 election for the 9th Congressional District seat has uncovered a fraudulent absentee ballot scheme by an operative for Republican candidate Mark Harris, according to testimony at a State Board of Elections hearing in Raleigh that could prompt a new vote.
The seat has remained vacant since state officials refused to certify Harris’ apparent victory over Democratic rival Dan McCready by 905 votes out of 282,717 ballots cast.
The five-member elections board, which must decide if the evidence warrants a new vote, heard on Monday that Republican operative Leslie McCrae Dowless hired workers to collect absentee ballot requests from voters and then return to retrieve the ballots, in violation of state law.
The paid workers in some cases falsely signed as witnesses and filled in votes for contests left blank at Dowless’ home or office, said Kim Strach, executive director of the elections board.
Andy Yates, founder and partner of consultancy Red Dome Group and Harris’ top strategist, testified on Wednesday he was not aware that Dowless had put his initials on ballot request forms before submitting them.
State investigators said Dowless did that so the local board of elections would notify him and not the voter if there was a problem. Yates agreed that was not permissible under state law.
Yates also said he did not know of Dowless’ past criminal record when Red Dome hired him in 2017. Dowless served six months in jail after he was convicted of felony fraud in 1992, according to court records.
Dowless hired workers to collect absentee ballot requests, among other duties pertaining to the 2018 election, Yates said, adding that he never paid Dowless to collect actual ballots.
“Based on what he told me, I had no reason to believe he was not running a lawful absentee ballot program,” Yates said on Wednesday.
Dowless’ lawyer has said he did nothing wrong.
State Republicans have pushed for the board to certify Harris as the district’s representative. The U.S. House of Representatives would then determine whether to seat him.
McCready’s lawyer, Marc Elias, considered one of the nation’s top election law specialists, said the testimony had revealed “massive election fraud” that justified a new election.
If Democrats pick up the seat, they would widen their 235-197 majority in the House after taking control of the chamber from President Donald Trump’s Republicans in November.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jeffrey Benkoe)