Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Day 1 wrap-up: NC experienced congressional election fraud, but not of the Trump variety

Attorney Cynthia Singletary, left, says her client, McCrae Dowless, will not testify without immunity during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation. (Photo by Juli Leonard/Raleigh News and Observer)

The first day of an evidentiary hearing about a full-scale unlawful absentee ballot scheme that benefited 9th Congressional District Republican candidate Mark Harris ended with even more of a bang than when it began.

McCrae Dowless, the man hand-picked by Harris to work on his campaign with Red Dome Consulting, sat in the courtroom Monday and watched all day as evidence unfolded about his extensive involvement in an operation that involved collecting unsealed absentee ballots and voting for those individuals who left their form blank, among other things.

He listened to his step-daughter, his ex-wife and the people he’d been nice to along the way who helped him with the ballot harvesting scheme testify about how he directed them to commit felonies and paid them for it and about his speakerphone conversations with Harris and others. They spoke about how they trusted Dowless and about how hindsight showed just how wrong they’d been to do so.

When it came time to tell his side of the story, Dowless refused. His attorney, Cynthia Adams Singletary, said they satisfied the subpoena requesting his attendance but he wouldn’t testify unless the State Board of Elections compelled him to do so.

If the newly appointed five-member Board were to do that, it would mean Dowless could receive criminal immunity for his testimony, according to North Carolina law. The Board was unwilling to grant that immunity and asked instead for Dowless to voluntarily testify, knowing that if he chose not to, the Board had the right to take negative inferences from his refusal.

Dowless would not testify and he was excused from the subpoena as the day ended.

The State Board is considering whether to certify Harris’ race.  The evidence presented Monday about the “coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme” is the first time North Carolinians learned about the extent of the alleged fraud — which wasn’t the widespread individual voter fraud touted over the past year by President Donald Trump and his administration.

The fraud here was painted as a grassroots effort led by Dowless to make sure Harris would be elected to the 9th congressional district. Residents in poor, rural Bladen and Robeson counties — both hit hard by the recent hurricanes — were taken advantage of by Dowless, whether it was by having his associates collect and sign and fill out their absentee ballots or whether it was by his showing kindness to them and then later asking for help committing election fraud.

Witness Kelly Hendrix cries as she is questioned by executive director of the Board of Elections Kim Strach during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation. (Photo by Juli Leonard/Raleigh News and Observer)

Kelly Hendrix sobbed for a brief moment when she was asked how she knew Dowless. She testified that she met him when she worked at Hardee’s and he gave her a ride to work once. After that, they connected, and she started helping him out with the ballots. In return, he’d give her gas money here and there, but never said it was for the ballots specifically, she said.

Kimberly Sue Robinson trusted Dowless so much, she gave his associates a completely blank ballot signed for him to choose the candidates she should vote for. She’s done that a couple times, and even when she hasn’t, Dowless has told her who she should vote for “because I was not familiar with the politics,” she testified.

“I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong, to be honest,” Robinson said during cross-examination questioning.

Dowless’ ex-wife, Sandra Dowless, also testified that she overheard him leading a meeting in April 2018 with Jeff Smith, who allowed him to use an empty storefront to operate out of. In the meeting, they were talking about picking up ballots, whether they were sealed or unsealed and bringing them to Dowless.

Sandra said it caught her attention when she heard “unsealed” and she confronted her ex about it. He assured her it was Smith’s idea and showed her a letter he signed as his “insurance policy” to prove he wasn’t part of it.

Sandra also testified that she overheard a speakerphone call later in the year between Harris and Dowless, in which her ex assured the congressional candidate he was in the lead and that things were looking good. When Harris asked how he knew, he said he checked information at the Board of Elections that anyone can get.

Lisa Britt pauses before answering a question during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation. (Photo by Juli Leonard/Raleigh News and Observer)

“McCrae said he goes by the board and looks at the data sheet,” Sandra said from the witness stand. “He just said, ‘I know how the people voted.'”

Her daughter, Lisa Britt, had been the State Board’s main witness all day. Britt worked for Dowless harvesting, signing and filling out absentee ballots. She and her two children at the time were living with him after she got out of a bad relationship, she said.

Britt said Dowless paid between $150 and $175 cash per 50 absentee ballot registrations they collected and were later paid $125 per 50 actual absentee ballots they picked up, which changed in the last couple weeks before the election to a flat rate of $200 per week. She also testified about the lengths Dowless went to to avoid raising red flags to the Board of Elections, including using the same color ink for witnesses’ signatures as voters’ and mailing ballots from voters’ nearby post boxes.

Red Dome Consulting paid Dowless $131,375.57 (and billed Harris) between July 3, 2017 and Nov. 7, 2018. It’s not clear all of those payments were for the ballots regarding the 9th congressional district and it could include payments from other candidates, according to evidence from the State Board.

The State Board was unable to confirm if any of the early vote totals were leaked to Dowless by local Board of Elections staff, but they did find a number of security concerns at the building.

Mark Harris listens to the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation Monday morning. (Photo by Juli Leonard/Raleigh News and Observer)

Britt said she thought Harris was “completely clueless” about the whole fraud scheme and expressed sympathy for the “bad rap” he was getting throughout all the attention. She said she didn’t want to get anyone in trouble.

“Is it fair to punish Dr. Harris for your conduct?” Harris’ attorney David Freedman asked.

“No sir,” Britt replied.

Harris’ attorney, Alex Dale, said after the hearing that it was Dowless’ right not to testify, but that it was unfortunate for the people he misled, particularly his client. Harris watched the hearing from the middle-front of the room. He took notes occasionally and shook his head a couple times. His Democratic opponent Dan McCready was not present.

Republicans in North Carolina contend that the State Board’s decision should not have to do with the taint of fraud — it’s a numbers game. Are there enough fraudulent ballots to cancel out Harris’ 905 vote victory margin?

The State Board to this point hasn’t presented evidence of that, nor have they presented evidence that Harris knew of Dowless’ scheme. But they say the evidence isn’t just about the ballots that were counted; it’s just as much about the ballots that weren’t counted.

Democrats are trying to say that the overall taint of fraud creates distrust by the public in the election system and it must be met with a new election. Certifying Harris endorses election fraud and sends a message to voters that democracy is not a priority, they say.

The State Board says it will consider both of those arguments when making its decision about certifying the race or calling for a new election. Once it makes a decision — likely within the next few days — the U.S. House also has the ability to conduct its own investigation into Harris if they were supposed to seat him.

In the meantime, the voters of the 9th congressional district are unrepresented in the U.S. House.

Day two of the evidentiary hearing will continue at 9:30 a.m. this morning. Follow @mel_bough on Twitter for live updates.

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