The executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections revealed Monday that state officials had uncovered a “coordinated” and “unlawful” effort to collect absentee ballots on behalf of a Republican congressional candidate in the November election.
Kim Strach, the board’s executive director, made the comments at a closely watched public evidentiary hearing in Raleigh on Monday following a monthslong investigation into election irregularities in the state’s 9th Congressional District. The state board declined to certify the race last November and could order a new election after the hearing. Republican Mark Harris currently leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in the race.
In the first public comments outlining the results of the state’s probe, Strach said investigators had evidence that McCrae Dowless, a political operative working on behalf of the Harris campaign, filled out and mailed in incomplete or blank ballots from both his office and home. She said Dowless paid people in cash to collect requests for absentee ballots and the ballots themselves. The state board also has evidence, she said, that Dowless paid people to falsify signatures on absentee ballots indicating that they had witnessed those ballots being filled out (North Carolina requires two witnesses to someone filling out an absentee ballot).
It is not illegal to help someone request an absentee ballot in North Carolina, but it is illegal for anyone other than a close relative to take custody of the actual ballot.
Strach said Dowless took several steps to conceal the fraud. Those measures included using the same color ink as the voter who filled out other parts of the ballot, mailing the ballot from a post office close to the voter and placing the stamps on the envelopes in a certain way not to raise red flags.
Paid To Collect Absentee Ballots
The first witness at the hearing ― Lisa Britt, a Dowless employee ― testified that she was paid to go out and help voters ask for absentee ballots and to collect the absentee ballots themselves. Britt, whose mother was married to Dowless decades ago, said she received $150 to $175 for every 50 request forms she turned in. She said she was initially paid about $125 for every 50 absentee ballots she turned in, but later that was turned into a weekly fee because it was more difficult to get people to hand over their absentee ballots.
Britt said Dowless never told her to not take custody of the ballots.
She also accused Dowless of trying to obstruct the investigation into irregularities and even attempting to influence her testimony before the board. She said that after the election, he had told his workers that if they stuck together, nothing would happen because officials didn’t have evidence of wrongdoing. According to Britt, Dowless instructed her last Thursday to testify on Monday that neither she nor Dowless had done anything wrong and to plead her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
In her testimony, Britt confirmed what Strach said as well. She said she herself had collected between 35 and 40 absentee ballots, about half of which had been properly witnessed. She said she didn’t mark anyone’s ballot to indicate a vote for Harris, but on unsealed ballots, she did fill out downballot races for Republicans. She said she did this so that election officials wouldn’t get suspicious as to why there were so many races left blank and because Dowless was working on behalf of Republicans.
According to Britt, Dowless instructed her to mail only nine or 10 absentee ballots at a time from a post office close to where the voters lived. Mailing more could raise suspicions.
She said she had accidentally placed a stamp upside down on an absentee ballot and Dowless had told her not to do that because that too could raise red flags with election officials.
When Marc Elias, a lawyer for McCready, pressed Britt as to why she never questioned Dowless about the underlying purpose behind all these steps, she said it was because he was like a father figure to her and she trusted that he wouldn’t ask her to do anything illegal.
Britt said that she now believed she had engaged in wrongdoing, but that she didn’t know at the time what she was doing was wrong. Dowless, she said, had done things wrong as well.
She also said she did not believe that Harris knew anything about the absentee ballot scheme.
Cynthia Singletary, an attorney representing Dowless, told reporters in Raleigh on Monday that he had not tried to obstruct testimony.
Asked To Falsely Sign As Voter’s Witness
The second witness called by the state board on Monday was Kelly Hendrix, who also worked for Dowless. She said she got to know him when he gave her rides to her job at Hardee’s.
Hendrix said that Dowless asked her to sign as a witness on absentee ballots that she personally had not collected.
Just as the first day of the hearing was coming to a close, the board called Dowless as a witness. But Singletary, his lawyer, said her client would decline to testify unless the board ordered him to do so.
After the board went into a brief closed session, board member Robert Cordle said a state statute required Dowless to be given immunity if he was ordered to testify ― something the board was unwilling to do. Instead, Cordle asked him to testify voluntarily and said they would assume “negative inferences” if he did not. Singletary said again that Dowless would not testify.
“My client would love to testify under the right conditions,” Singletary told reporters after the hearing.
What About The Ballots Never Mailed In?
Republicans have called on the state board to certify Harris as the winner of the congressional race if the board does not have evidence that the alleged illegal activity could have swayed the outcome of the election.
In her opening remarks on Monday, Strach said the state board was looking not only at absentee ballots that were mailed in but at the unusually high number of absentee ballots that voters requested but didn’t return to election officials in two counties in the 9th District. She said that over 2,000 absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties went unreturned.
Strach said that Harris had hired Dowless through a third party, Red Dome Group, and paid him $131,375 between July 2017 and November 2018.
CORRECTION: Strach said Red Dome paid Dowless $131,375 (not $131,275) between July 2017 and November 2018.