N.C. of­fi­cials say GOP aide or­ches­trated bal­lot scheme

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY AMY GARDNER

RALEIGH, N.C. — State elec­tion of­fi­cials in North Carolina said Mon­day that a po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive for Repub­li­can Mark Har­ris or­ches­trated a “co­or­di­nated, un­law­ful, and sub­stan­tially re­sourced ab­sen­tee bal­lot scheme” in the 9th Con­gres­sional District last year, hid­ing ev­i­dence of the op­er­a­tion as it un­folded and ob­struct­ing the state’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion af­ter the elec­tion.

Those ex­plo­sive charges opened an ev­i­den­tiary hear­ing Mon­day in Raleigh, where the North Carolina State Board of Elec­tions be­gan lis­ten­ing to wit­ness tes­ti­mony to de­cide whether enough bal­lots were tam­pered with to taint the out­come of the 9th District race.

The state board’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Kim Strach, told the five­mem­ber board that Les­lie McCrae Dow­less, a long­time po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive from Bladen County, paid work­ers to col­lect ab­sen­tee bal­lots from vot­ers, a felony in North Carolina. Dow­less and his em­ploy­ees in some cases forged voter and wit­ness sig­na­tures and filled out blank or

in­com­plete bal­lots, Strach said. They op­er­ated in both Bladen and Robe­son coun­ties, she said — sub­mit­ting as many as 1,249 bal­lot re­quest forms over­all in the gen­eral elec­tion. It’s un­clear ex­actly how many ac­tual bal­lots Dow­less and his as­so­ciates turned in.

Strach did not of­fer ev­i­dence that Har­ris knew of the scheme. Har­ris per­son­ally directed Dow­less’s hir­ing de­spite be­ing warned about his tac­tics, but he has said re­peat­edly that he had no knowl­edge of Dow­less’s al­leged il­le­gal op­er­a­tions.

The elec­tion has been in limbo since Novem­ber, when the state elec­tions board de­clined to cer­tify Har­ris’s 905-vote lead over Demo­crat Dan McCready, in­stead launch­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the al­le­ga­tions against Dow­less. Af­ter it hears the ev­i­dence from that in­ves­ti­ga­tion this week, the board will de­cide whether to cer­tify the re­sults or call for a new elec­tion.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors painted a por­trait Mon­day of a wide­spread scheme to il­le­gally han­dle ab­sen­tee bal­lots. They did not of­fer ev­i­dence that enough bal­lots were tainted to change the nar­row out­come of the race — a fact that Repub­li­cans seized on as ev­i­dence that Har­ris re­mains the right­ful win­ner in the last un­de­cided con­gres­sional race in the na­tion.

“While it is dis­ap­point­ing that folks may have vi­o­lated the law, at this point we are deal­ing with a lim­ited num­ber of bal­lots that are nowhere close to bring­ing the elec­tion re­sult into ques­tion,” Dal­las Wood­house, head of the state GOP, told re­porters Mon­day.

That same ev­i­dence prompted Democrats to ar­gue that the over­all re­sult is tainted, which can also prompt a do-over un­der state law.

To help Har­ris win, Dow­less and his em­ploy­ees went to some lengths to avoid “rais­ing red flags” with elec­tion of­fi­cials, Strach’s first wit­ness, Lisa Britt, told the board Mon­day. They mailed no more than nine or 10 bal­lots at a time, and they made sure to mail them from the near­est post of­fices to the vot­ers’ homes, even though many of the bal­lots were signed and wit­nessed en masse at Dow­less’s of­fice. They took pains to use the same ink for voter and wit­ness sig­na­tures, and to make sure stamps were af­fixed to the bal­lot en­velopes in a way that didn’t re­veal a pat­tern, said Britt, who is Dow­less’s for­mer step­daugh­ter.

“I had placed a stamp up­side down” on one of the bal­lot en­velopes, Britt tes­ti­fied. “Mr. Dow­less fussed at me about that. I guess one or two wouldn’t have mat­tered, but if you’ve got 10 or 15 com­ing in that way, they’re go­ing to say, ‘ Now hey, wait a minute.’ ”

Britt said she never dis­carded a bal­lot nor did she see Dow­less do so.

Her mother, San­dra Dow­less, who is Dow­less’s ex-wife, tes­ti­fied that she heard Dow­less on the phone be­fore the elec­tion telling Har­ris he was ahead among ab­sen­tee vot­ers. When Har­ris asked Dow­less how he knew that, Dow­less said he had looked at data pro­vided by the county elec­tions board.

The board pub­lished ev­i­dence in De­cem­ber that the county elec­tion staff im­prop­erly re­leased early-vot­ing re­sults. Strach said Mon­day that no ev­i­dence has emerged that any­one in­side the lo­cal board re­leased those re­sults to Dow­less.

But she also said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion has shown se­ri­ous se­cu­rity lapses in the county elec­tion of­fice.

Har­ris lawyer Alex Dale said Dow­less told Har­ris he was re­lay­ing pub­licly avail­able in­for­ma­tion.

One el­e­ment of the con­tro­versy on vivid dis­play Mon­day was the per­va­sive eco­nomic hard­ship of eastern North Carolina, which was dev­as­tated by Hur­ri­cane Florence weeks be­fore the Novem­ber elec­tion — and where many of Dow­less’s as­so­ciates were drawn to him be­cause he was kind to peo­ple in need.

Kelly Hen­drix, who tes­ti­fied that she il­le­gally col­lected and bal­lots for Dow­less, wept on the wit­ness stand as she de­scribed how she be­gan help­ing him af­ter he had given her rides to her job at a Hardee’s. Dow­less oc­ca­sion­ally gave her gas money while she helped him col­lect bal­lots, she said.

Hen­drix also of­fered a glimpse of what a small com­mu­nity Bladen County is, say­ing that most of the peo­ple from whom she col­lected bal­lots were “pretty much my in-laws, my boyfriend’s fam­ily, my fam­ily.”

In a court­room at the North Carolina State Bar usu­ally used for dis­ci­plinary hear­ings, spec­ta­tors, wit­nesses and more than a dozen at­tor­neys mixed with the principals in the case, in­clud­ing Dow­less and many of those who worked for him in the al­leged scheme.

There were few fire­works, but Strach’s as­ser­tion that Dow­less had sought to in­ter­fere with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion gen­er­ated at­ten­tion, in­clud­ing a note Strach pro­duced that Britt said Dow­less gave to her, in­struct­ing her to assert her Fifth Amend­ment rights and not an­swer ques­tions at Mon­day’s hear­ing.

McCready’s lawyer, prom­i­nent Demo­crat Marc Elias, drew a re­buke from board chair­man Bob Cor­dle for not giv­ing Britt enough time to an­swer ques­tions be­fore throw­ing out a new one.

Har­ris watched the hear­ing in­tently from the front of the room, oc­ca­sion­ally jot­ting down notes and at times turn­ing to take in the re­ac­tions of the au­di­ence. Dow­less, sit­ting in the back of the room with his le­gal coun­sel, sat erect and at times strained to hear the wit­ness tes­ti­mony.

McCready was not at the hear­ing.

At the end of the day, Strach sur­prised the room by call­ing Dow­less to tes­tify, but his lawyer, Cyn­thia Sin­gle­tary, said he would not tes­tify without im­mu­nity.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion has re­fo­cused the na­tional de­bate about elec­tion fraud, in which Repub­li­cans led by Pres­i­dent Trump al­lege wide­spread voter fraud with lit­tle ev­i­dence, while Democrats have ac­cused Repub­li­cans of try­ing to hin­der bal­lot ac­cess and in­tim­i­date vot­ers who typ­i­cally vote Demo­cratic.

This time it is the Democrats seek­ing to show that fraud af­fect signed ed the out­come of a fed­eral elec­tion, while Repub­li­cans are try­ing to save the nar­row vic­tory of their can­di­date.

Adding to the par­ti­san cur­rents, the state elec­tions board re­quires a su­per­ma­jor­ity of four votes to call for a new elec­tion. With three Democrats and two Repub­li­cans, the board will not have the votes to take any ac­tion if its mem­bers vote along par­ti­san lines. That would turn at­ten­tion to Congress, which also has the power to or­der a new elec­tion.

Britt, the first wit­ness, de­clared on the stand that Har­ris knew noth­ing.

“I think you’ve got one in­no­cent per­son in this thing who hasn’t done any­thing wrong and who is get­ting a re­ally bad rap in all of this, and that’s Mr. Har­ris,” she said.

Dow­less’s lawyer, Sin­gle­tary, told re­porters that Britt’s tes­ti­mony “is not true.” Asked whether Dow­less directed il­le­gal bal­lot-har­vest­ing, she re­sponded, “Hell, no!”

Strach told the board that the staff de­ployed four in­ves­ti­ga­tors in the 9th District, in­ter­view­ing 142 vot­ers and 30 wit­nesses and ex­am­in­ing thou­sands of sub­poe­naed cam­paign and phone records. She said Dow­less paid his work­ers $125 for every 50 ab­sen­tee bal­lots they col­lected.

Dow­less, 63, was in­ves­ti­gated in 2016, when he helped de­liver an over­whelm­ing share of the mail-in vote in Bladen County for a dif­fer­ent Repub­li­can con­gres­sional can­di­date, Todd John­son. The 9th District stretches along the South Carolina bor­der from Char­lotte to ru­ral, eastern North Carolina.

The board has planned three days of hear­ings this week, but gave no sign by the end of the day Mon­day whether the tes­ti­mony would wrap up by then.

PHO­TOS BY JULI LEONARD/RALEIGH NEWS & OB­SERVER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

TOP: Mark Har­ris (R) at­tends a hear­ing in Raleigh on the probe into last fall’s 9th District elec­tion. ABOVE: Kim Strach, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the North Carolina State Board of Elec­tions, ques­tions a wit­ness on the al­leged scheme, which in­volves the last un­de­cided con­gres­sional race.

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