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UPDATE: State Board orders new 9th congressional district election after candidate Harris concedes

Mark Harris, Republican candidate in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional race, prepares to testify during the fourth day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation. (Photo by Travis Long/Raleigh News and Observer)

Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris called Thursday for a new election in the 9th district after nearly four days of testimony about his hired political operative committing absentee ballot fraud in Bladen and Robeson counties.

“Through the testimony I’ve listened to in the past three days, I believe a new election should be called,” he said. The entire room let out a collective gasp. “It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the 9th district’s seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.”

The five-member State Board of Elections — made up of three Democrats and two Republicans — voted unanimously a short time later to order new elections for the remaining uncertified races on the ballot, including the 9th congressional race.

Harris’ sudden and unexpected change of heart came a day after his son, John Harris, testified that his father ignored multiple warnings from him in phone calls and emails about political operative McCrae Dowless’ illegal tactics before hiring him. The 29-year-old assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina had previously provided the State Board with emails showing exchanges between him and his parents in which he told them he was fairly certain Dowless was collecting absentee ballots from voters, a felony.

The Harris campaign had never turned those emails over to the State Board until about 15 minutes before the younger Harris testified Wednesday. The campaign also turned over other communications from Harris about Dowless later that night.

The State Board has been holding an evidentiary hearing this week to decide whether to certify the 9th congressional race or call for a new election because of alleged absentee ballot fraud. Harris won the race over Democratic candidate Dan McCready by 905 votes. It is the last congressional race in the nation to not be certified.

Harris campaign attorney John Branch apologized to the State Board on Thursday morning for the late production of documents, and said he had a narrow interpretation of the subpoena they were under. Marc Elias, who represents McCready, insinuated that the Harris campaign misclassified certain employees as contractors to avoid complying with the subpoena and said it wasn’t the first time they were involved in questionable practices.

The State Board continued on with Harris’ testimony, and he said he never took his son’s warnings seriously. He was asked under oath if he knew the emails between him and his son would be admitted as evidence, and he said he did.

He was asked no less than three times by two different attorneys whether he’d had any conversations with anyone about believing the emails would not be part of the evidence this week.

“I don’t recall specifically saying that, I’m not denying that I could have said that,” he answered once.

When Elias asked him the question twice, noting the last time that he wanted to give Harris one more chance to answer it, he still denied such communication.

“I cannot imagine and cannot remember with all the information over the last four days that I would have made a statement that the emails John and I had would not be part of this,” Harris responded.

After a lunch break, Harris took the stand and said he wanted to make a statement to the State Board.

“It’s been brought to my attention that I talked to my son, my younger son Matthew who I referenced earlier, two nights ago about the fact that I did not think that John’s emails would be brought to this hearing,” he said. “Obviously I was incorrect in my recollection and I wholeheartedly apologize to this Board. On Jan. 18, I went to the hospital. After battling what we thought was bronchitis, I developed a severe infection that actually caused me to become septic and in the process of that illness, I experienced two strokes from which I am still recovering. Though I thought I was ready to undergo the rigors of this hearing, and am getting stronger, I clearly am not and I struggled this morning to both recall and confusion. Neither I nor any of my campaign were aware of or condoned the improper activities that have been testified to in this hearing.”

Harris was then excused from the stand and then left the room without answering questions from reporters outside.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated throughout the day.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Top Harris political consultant ‘shocked and disturbed’ to learn of absentee ballot fraud scheme

Andy Yates, a political consultant with Red Dome Group, prepares to testify under oath during the second day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation. (Photo by Travis Long/Raleigh News and Observer)

The consultant who paid more than $130,000 to a political operative working for Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris said Tuesday he was “shocked and disturbed” to learn about a fraudulent absentee ballot scheme in Bladen and Robeson counties that benefitted the election campaign.

Andy Yates, who runs political consulting firm Red Dome Group, said he never had the first suspicion that McCrae Dowless Jr. was hiring workers to collect absentee ballots from voters in the rural areas, witness them and in some cases fill out the incomplete ones.

“If that had ever become evident to me during the campaign, I would have immediately cut off all contact with Mr. Dowless, he would have never been paid by Red Dome again [and] I would have told Dr. Harris to fire him immediately,” he said. “I care deeply about the integrity of our democracy, and I’m not going to put up with that junk, frankly crap, excuse my language. I’ve worked too hard to build my business to let one person lie to me and do something wrong that they specifically told me that they weren’t doing and ruin me and ruin my business.”

Yates has been the State Board of Elections’ most confident and prepared witness thus far. He’s also one of the only witnesses who hired an attorney, who watched the proceedings diligently from a chair nearby. Yates was on the stand for nearly four hours and is expected to continue testifying this morning.

State Board Chairman Bob Cordle said he expects Harris to testify next and indicated the evidentiary hearing could spill into Thursday before concluding.

The State Board put on witnesses Monday who told the story of how Dowless pulled off an illegal absentee ballot operation. They described unknowingly committing felonies at his direction, forging signatures, completing blank forms and mailing batches of ballots to the local boards of election.

Witnesses focused Tuesday on how early voting results — tabulated incorrectly a week before the actual election —  could have possibly been leaked and whether Harris knew about the alleged fraud.

9th Congressional district candidate Mark Harris, a Republican, speaks to attorneys during a break Tuesday at a hearing about alleged fraud during his campaign. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Harris won the 9th congressional district by 905 votes over Democratic candidate Dan McCready, but the State Board refused to certify the results because of the ongoing investigation into absentee ballot irregularities. The five-member Board will decide this week whether to certify the race or order a new election, and they’re considering more than just the math of how many votes are at issue — they are weighing whether the scope of the fraud tainted the race, casting doubt on the fairness of it.

Yates testified that he would be surprised if Harris knew about Dowless’ illegal operation. But he also said that Dowless’ hiring by the candidate was a “done deal” before Red Dome was brought on to the campaign.

Dowless, who he described as a needy man needing frequent validation and a political junkie with nothing else going on, stayed in constant contact with Yates and Harris, according to testimony. He would update them about his progress and talk to Yates about all aspects of the campaign and frequently about anything numbers related.

From the very beginning, Dowless told Yates his operation was by-the-book, and he never questioned it — but neither did Harris.

“He told me that at no time were his folks to ever touch, handle, put their hands on, collect, mail an absentee ballot,” Yates said. “He knew that was illegal and he made sure all of his folks knew that was illegal.”

Yates paid Dowless a monthly fee of $1,200 during the primary in addition to $4 for each absentee ballot request form he turned in and a monthly fee of $1,625 during the general election cycle in addition to $5 for the absentee request forms. He also reimbursed Dowless for office space and utilities, office supplies and other miscellaneous expenses. He never asked for receipts and never verified how many absentee ballot request forms Dowless told him he turned in.

“His word was good enough for Dr. Harris,” Yates said. “I felt no reason to verify it; Dr. Harris never asked me to verify it. … We had no reason to believe his numbers were off.”

Read more

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GOP senators file bill reversing decision to shrink Court of Appeals

Senators Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), Warren Daniel (R-Caldwell) and Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg)

Almost two years after passing a measure to shrink the state Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12, Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation to reverse their decision.

Senators Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), Warren Daniel (R-Caldwell) and Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) filed Senate Bill 75 Monday. They did not immediately respond to a request for comment about what spurred the change of heart.

Hise, Daniel and Bishop all voted to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the original bill reducing the Court of Appeals, House Bill 239. Bishop was absent when the measure was first passed, but he was a supporter in committee meetings. The other two voted in favor of the original bill.

Former Rep. Justin Burr, a Republican who represented Stanley and Montgomery counties, sponsored the measure shrinking the court. It was one of several bills he pushed to change the state judiciary for partisan gain — those efforts led to his loss in the primary election last year.

Doug McCullough

Doug McCullough, a Republican judge who retired early from the Court of Appeals to prevent HB 239 from taking effect, said Tuesday morning in a phone interview he thinks the new bill restoring the number of judges was a good idea.

“I’m glad to see that the legislature realizes they made a mistake, and I hope that they correct it,” he said.

McCullough didn’t know the bill was going to be filed and he could only speculate about why Republicans changed their minds from their decision to shrink the court. He wondered if Phil Berger Jr., a Court of Appeals judge who recently announced he would run for a Supreme Court seat next year, told his father, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger that they couldn’t function with an odd number of judges.

Republican judge Robert Hunter Jr. will reach mandatory retirement at the end of this month. His departure would bring the court down to 14 judges — eight Republicans and six Democrats.

If he leaves along with his resources, McCullough said, the heavy workload will fall on the other judges on the court.

“We don’t work like other courts,” the retiree said.

One thing SB 75 doesn’t reverse is the workload HB 239 took from the Court of Appeals and rerouted to the state Supreme Court — class action certification appeals, business appeals and 3.1 case appeals (which involve children and issues of abuse and neglect and termination of parental rights).

McCullough said the Court of Appeals perfected an expedited process for those cases involving child issues and termination of parental rights. He described the cases as very technical and not of the same constitutional frame that Supreme Court justices are used to working in.

“I hope that they reverse that matter as well,” he said.

If SB 75 is passed, Gov. Roy Cooper would have the authority to appoint judges to fill the vacancy left by Hunter’s departure.

(This post has been updated. An earlier version inaccurately stated that Judge Ann Marie Calabria would be retiring in October of 2019. Judge Calabria actually left the court last month and was replaced by Judge Toby Hampson, who was elected last November.)

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. Read more

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Board of Elections uncovers ‘unlawful’ absentee ballot scheme in 9th congressional district race

Several people gathered Monday outside the State Bar and called for a new election before the start of an evidentiary hearing about alleged absentee ballot fraud in the 9th congressional district. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

A political operative working for Republican U.S. Congressional candidate Mark Harris paid people to help him collect, fill out and turn in absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties leading up to last year’s midterm election, according to evidence gathered by the State Board of Elections.

Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach said Monday there was a “coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme” uncovered in those areas, which has delayed the certification of a couple races, including Harris’ for the 9th congressional district.

Allegations have swirled for months around Leslie McCrae Dowless, who was paid (and paid others) to illegally harvest absentee ballots, but the evidentiary hearing Monday is the first time the most shocking details have been released.

Dowless stared straight-faced ahead from the back of a room at the State Bar as a preview of evidence about his alleged operation flashed on two TV screens up front. His expression didn’t change when his former stepdaughter, Lisa Britt, testified about how he paid her to help with the absentee ballots and then tried to get her to plead the fifth at this hearing in a letter last week.

“I can tell you that I haven’t done anything wrong in the election, and McCrae Dowless has never told me to do anything wrong, and to my knowledge, he has never done anything wrong, but I am taking the 5th Amendment because I don’t have an attorney and I feel like you will try to trip me up,” the typed-letter stated. “I am taking the 5th.”

The allegation of obstruction was a surprise to most in the room, including Dowless’ attorney, Cynthia Adams Singletary. Dowless ignored questions about it from reporters following him out of the room during a lunch break.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Singletary said, adding that she was sure he didn’t give that letter to Britt.

McCrae Dowless (right of the man with the blond hair) watched an evidentiary hearing Monday alleging he pulled off an absentee ballot scheme in Bladen and Robeson counties last year. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Singletary maintained Dowless’ innocence despite the evidence presented during the first half of the day. She said she wasn’t sure before the hearing if Britt was going to testify. When asked if Dowless tried to stop anyone from testifying, she snapped, “hell no!”

Britt testified that she and others were paid somewhere between $150 and $175 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. They were paid in cash when they turned the ballots into Dowless at either his office or his home.

Britt said Dowless explained what she was supposed to do and that she thought they were helping people register to vote. Bladen County is a poor area, she added, so they were giving voters more opportunities to cast ballots.

She couldn’t recall how much money she was paid entirely for her work or how many people’s ballots she was personally involved in helping with.

“We dealt with a lot of people, so I’m not really sure how many people it was we registered to vote,” Britt testified.

Other things she testified about included Dowless instructing her to use the same color ink to sign as a witness as the voter’s signature and how they filled in some incomplete ballots where voters didn’t choose candidates for certain races. She also admitted to signing her mother’s name as a witness on some forms when she was told she had been a witness on too many ballots.

It wasn’t until Dowless “fussed” at her for putting upside-down stamps on ballot mail-in envelopes that she realized they were doing something wrong. He told her they didn’t want to raise any red flags for the Board of Elections to catch on.

“I guess one or two wouldn’t have mattered but if you had 10 or 15 come in like that, they’d think, ‘Now, hey, wait a minute, why are they all coming in that way?'” Britt said.

She also testified that they would never mail more than nine or 10 ballots at a time, and they would mail them from mailboxes closest to voters to prevent suspicion.

Britt expressed some sympathy for Harris, who she said she believed didn’t know about the absentee ballot scheme.

“I think Mr. Harris was completely clueless as to what was going on, as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

Harris was at the hearing. He wore a navy blue suit and lighter blue tie and his hand covered his mouth for much of the hearing. His Democratic opponent Dan McCready was not present.

Overall evidence presented by the Strach showed that at least 788 absentee ballot request forms in Bladen County were submitted by Dowless or his workers in Blade County for the general election. At least 231 of the same requests, but as many as 449, were submitted by Dowless or his workers in Robeson County.

The way the scheme operated was that Dowless’ workers obtained the absentee ballot request forms from voters then turned them back into him for payment. The request forms were photocopied and maintained at Dowless’ office and then delivered to the local Board of Elections by Dowless, according to the State Board.

The actual unsealed absentee ballots were also collected directly from voters, some with no witness signatures or with only one witness signature. Those ballots were kept at Dowless’ home or office, and he instructed people to falsely sign as witnesses and fill out votes on blank or incomplete forms.

Red Dome Consulting, hired by Harris, paid Dowless $131,375.57 between July 3, 2017 and Nov. 7, 2018. Strach said 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.

The State Board was unable to confirm if any of the early vote totals were leaked, according to Strach.

The State Board, seated at the end of January, could decide this week whether or not to certify Harris’ race. The evidentiary hearing could take several days, and even if the race is certified, the U.S. House could launch its own investigation and refuse to seat Harris.

Bob Cordle, Chairman of the State Board, said if they decide to order a new election and not certify the race, it could be based on the number of fraudulent absentee ballots or the entirety of the improprieties that could taint the race and cast doubt on the fairness of it.

“Our voters must have trust in our process and believe their vote must be counted and believe elections must be fair,” Cordle said.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated as more information becomes available.