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All mail-in ballots in Bladen, Robeson were tainted, McCready says in asking for re-do

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Election fraud investigation

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Ballot harvesting by a Bladen County political operative “tainted” more ballots than the current margin in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, Democrat Dan McCready’s attorneys allege in documents filed to the state board of elections.

McCready trails Republican Mark Harris by 905 votes in unofficial results from the November election in the 9th district. The previous nine-member state board of elections twice declined to certify the results of the election, citing voting irregularities with mail-in absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties.

The newly constituted five-member state board will meet Monday and Tuesday in Raleigh to decide the fate of the election. The board’s staff has been investigating for months. In documents filed with the board, Harris is asking the group to certify the results and send him to Congress where the 9th district has been without a representative since January. McCready wants the board to call for a new election.

The McCready campaign argues that the number of ballots affected by Leslie McCrae Dowless — a Bladen County political operative and elected official who was hired at Harris’ direction to conduct get-out-the-vote work — could be as high as 2,500, citing the 1,364 absentee-by-mail ballots cast in Bladen and Robeson and the 1,169 absentee-by-mail ballots sent to voters that were not returned and who did not vote in another way.

The Harris campaign said McCready is basing its estimates on “hearsay and innuendo.”

The numbers

There were 684 mail-in absentee ballots cast in Bladen County — 420 for Harris, 258 for McCready and six for Libertarian Party candidate Jeff Scott. There were 680 mail-in absentee ballots cast in Robeson County — 403 for McCready, 259 for Harris and 18 for Scott.

In Bladen, Harris’ share of mail-in absentee votes was 41 percentage points higher than the number of registered Republicans voting, according to McCready’s campaign.

Dowless, whose work in the 2016 election led to multiple ongoing investigations, is alleged to have paid workers to collect requests for mail-in absentee ballots, which is legal, and to have paid workers to collect completed or incomplete mail-in absentee ballots, which is illegal.

“While only Dowless may ever know the breadth of his scheme, the evidence is conclusive: Dowless’s operation tainted a far greater number of ballots than the apparent margin in the CD-9 race, and he was aided and abetted by elections officials along the way,” the McCready campaign said in its brief.

Dowless himself turned in requests for 590 mail-in absentee ballots in Bladen County, according to data released by the state board. McCready’s legal brief says that Dowless and his associates made “well over 700” requests in Bladen County.

As for the unreturned ballots, the McCready campaign argues their rate was “exceedingly high” in Bladen and Robeson and claims that Dowless and his associates discarded ballots they had collected.

The McCready campaign also said that Bladen County election officials released early vote totals to Dowless, gave him access to unredacted ballot request forms and provided him regular reports with voter information connected to mail-in absentee ballots.

“The math submitted in the brief filed by McCready’s lawyers is that of pipe dreams. They frequently refer to disputed affidavits containing hearsay to back up their statistics,” said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, in a statement to the media.

“I don’t know where this number comes from. They have a number of affidavits they’ve filed that are based on hearsay and innuendo. I’ve seen no evidence of ballots being disposed of improperly,” Harris attorney David Freedman said, pointing out that Harris received 679 mail-in absentee votes in the two counties — less than the 905-vote margin.

McCready’s argument — that more than 905 ballots were affected — seems designed to rebut claims by the Harris campaign that the state board should certify his victory because there are not enough ballots to overcome the current deficit.

“Irregularity or misconduct alone does not mean a protest moves forward. The State Board must decide whether the irregularity is sufficient to cast doubt on the results of the election,” Harris’ attorneys wrote in their filing to the board. “If irregularity or misconduct — no matter its nature or egregiousness — does not cast doubt on the result, the protest should be dismissed.”

The Harris campaign has denied knowing about Dowless’ criminal history or about allegations of improper actions in 2016 until news reports after the election.

The previous nine-member board was disbanded in late December due to a separate legal challenge, but staff continued its investigation into the election results. The new board, made up of three Democrats and two Republicans, was appointed Jan. 31. Members got their first in-depth look at the evidence gathered by staff last week.

“They’ll be a number of things that need to be explained,” said board chairman Bob Cordle, a retired attorney from Charlotte. “What we want is the truth to come out.”

What if there’s deadlock?

Under state law, the board can call for a new election under four scenarios. Three of them require “a sufficient number of votes to change the outcome of the election” to be impacted. The fourth criteria says a new election can be called if “irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.”

The board faces two likely choices — certify Harris’ apparent victory or call for a new election. Either decision seemingly will require a crossover vote, that is, one Republican voting with Democrats or vice versa. Certification requires three votes. A new election requires four.

Anticipating a partisan deadlock that leaves the board short of the votes needed for either outcome, both candidates presented their preferred next step.

Harris’ campaign said the board is required to certify the election within 10 days of a failed vote on calling for a new election, which it says ends the board’s protest.

“Simply put, the State Board may not withhold a Certificate of Election indefinitely. The election code forbids it,” Harris’ attorneys write.

McCready asked that in the event of a 3-2 vote to call for a new election, the board send its “findings of fact, its record of proceedings, and its investigatory records to the U.S. House of Representatives” and wait to make a determination until the House decides if it will review the matter.

The House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats, has final say on seating its members. The chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction in the matter, wrote a letter in January asking the state board to preserve its evidence and materials.

“We can only get involved when the state has exhausted all of its remedies,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat and member of the House Administration Committee. “At some point, probably, we will.”

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.
Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.
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