(Reuters) – A North Carolina Republican, whose congressional campaign is under investigation for possible fraud, told election officials on Thursday he was unaware of an illegal effort to collect absentee ballots that might have tipped the vote in his favor.
The State Board of Elections has held off certifying the Republican candidate, Mark Harris, as the victor in the disputed Nov. 6 vote, in which he appeared to prevail over Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, out of 282,717 ballots cast.
The board has heard four days of testimony on whether the Harris campaign benefited from illegal election manipulation by political consultant Leslie McCrae Dowless.
Harris said on Thursday that he had known that Dowless, on his behalf, was going door to door to help voters obtain absentee ballots, a process that is legal. Harris said Dowless assured him that he would not collect the ballots from the voters, which would violate state law.
“‘What makes you so special? What do you do?'” Harris recalled asking Dowless at a 2017 meeting. Dowless answered, “‘We don’t touch ballots, we don’t take ballots,'” the candidate testified.
If the investigation finds the election was tainted, the five-member board could order a new vote to fill the seat. If Democrats pick up the seat, they would widen their 235-197 majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Residents of at least two counties in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District said Dowless and his paid workers collected incomplete absentee ballots, and in some instances, falsely signed as witnesses and filled in votes for races left blank, a election board official has said.
On Thursday, the Republican candidate said a Bladen County judge introduced him to Dowless, who led a successful absentee ballot program while working for Republican candidate Todd Johnson during a 2016 congressional primary election.
Harris’ son, John, testified on Wednesday that he suspected Dowless had illegally collected absentee ballots while working for Johnson, and that he had told his father about his suspicions.
Harris sought a meeting with Dowless when he learned of the success of the consultant’s 2016 absentee ballot program, according to text messages that Harris’ attorneys turned over to the board on Thursday, moments before the Republican was due to testify.
In those messages, Harris asked the county judge about “the guy whose absentee ballot project for Johnson could have put me in the US House this term, had I known, and he had been helping us.”
Campaign officials have said they did not pay Dowless to do anything illegal, and Dowless himself has proclaimed his innocence.
McCready’s lawyer, Marc Elias, one of the nation’s top election law specialists, said earlier this week the testimony had revealed “massive election fraud” that justified a new vote.
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.
(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston and Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Editing by Bernadette Baum)