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Operative at center of NC election fraud hearing won’t testify

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The stepdaughter of a Bladen County political operative detailed how she said his ballot harvesting operation worked on the first day of a hearing Monday into voting irregularities in the unresolved 2018 election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

Lisa Britt, whose mother was married to Leslie McCrae Dowless in the early 1990s, testified that Dowless paid workers to collect absentee ballot request forms and mail-in absentee ballots and drop them off at his office and his home.

She said Dowless and others made copies of request forms and had specific criteria for matching pen colors, where to mail ballots from, how many to mail at a time and even how to place stamps to avoid setting off alarms.

“He fussed at me for putting on stamps upside down,” Britt testified before the N.C. Board of Elections. “We didn’t want to throw up a red flag.”

Dowless, at the center of the controversy, declined to testify late in the day Monday. His attorney, Cynthia Adams Singletary, said he would only testify if granted immunity. When the board refused, Dowless was allowed to leave.

“If they want him to testify they’ll do what the North Carolina statute allows them to do for him to testify,” Singletary said.

Britt’s testimony was the beginning of the attempt by a new, five-member state board to prove what Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach called “a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme operated during the 2018 general election in Bladen and Robeson counties.”

The hearing took place in a makeshift courtroom at the state bar and drew dozens of potential witnesses as well as national media. When it ends, the board will vote to either certify the victory of Republican Mark Harris, call for a new election or deadlock, which would throw the matter into limbo.

Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in unofficial results in the district, which runs from Charlotte to Bladen County in the east.

Dowless was hired by Red Dome Group, Harris’ campaign consulting group at Harris’ direction. The state board said Red Dome Group paid Dowless $131,357.57 from July 3 to Nov. 7, but said that it could not be certain all of the money was for Harris’ campaign.

Monday marked the first time that state officials revealed their findings in the investigation, which launched in November and twice caused the old nine-member state board not to certify the election results.

Britt, a convicted felon who had previously spoken to investigators, said she didn’t think Dowless would have her do anything illegal. Britt, who testified without immunity and without a lawyer present, admitted to multiple election fraud activities.

“I don’t want to get him in trouble. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble,” Britt said. “Mr. Dowless has been a father figure to me for 30 years. There’s certain things you would place trust in. He’s not going to put you out here to do something illegal.”

Lisa Britt throws up her hands as she answers a question by by attorney Marc Elias during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

But Britt outlined a process by which she and other workers often signed as witnesses for ballots they did not see signed, traced over signatures to make sure the ink colors matched that of the voter’s, dated forms incorrectly, forged signatures and filled in down-ballot races on some ballots.

It is illegal in North Carolina for anyone outside of a close relative to handle a voter’s absentee ballot. Her testimony was backed by another witness, Kelly Hendrix, who testified that she collected ballots and turned them into Dowless with only one of the two required witness signatures. The forms were signed later, Hendrix said, by people who did not see them collected.

Britt also told the board that Dowless — on at least two occasions — tried to influence her public statements and testimony. As controversy swirled over the election results last year, Britt said Dowless called her and other workers together for a meeting at his house.

“As long as we all stick together we’ll all be fine, because they don’t have anything on us,” Britt said Dowless told them.

Britt, who along with her two young children lived with Dowless for a time last year, said late last week, Dowless sent her a note, urging her to say she had not done anything wrong, that Dowless had never instructed her to do anything wrong and to take the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination before the board.

The note was entered into evidence.

Britt testified that she made false statements during a December interview with WBTV, in which she denied collecting absentee ballots.

“I do feel I have done wrong,” she said.

Lisa Britt pauses before answering a question during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Harris sat in the room throughout the testimony, often staring intently at television screens displaying exhibits. He declined comment after the hearing ended for the day. McCready did not attend. Dowless sat near the back of the large room with his attorney.

Britt’s mother and Dowless’ ex-wife, Sandra Dowless, testified Monday that she overheard Dowless and Harris talking about the campaign and his get-out-the-vote effort. Dowless told Harris that he was “way in the lead,” Sandra Dowless said of the conversation she heard on speakerphone.

Harris asked how Dowless knew that, Sandra Dowless said, and Dowless said he’d gone to the local board of elections and saw who had voted. Harris asked if that was legal and Dowless assured the candidate it was and that he would not do anything illegal, Sandra Dowless said.

“You heard direct evidence of a scheme to deprive voters of the 9th Congressional District of fair balloting,” McCready campaign attorney Marc Elias said after the hearing. “And you heard that that direct evidence winds up doorstep and the telephone of Republican candidate Mark Harris.”

Republicans say unreturned ballots don’t necessarily suggest fraud. An attorney for the Harris campaign pointed out that the Bladen County Improvement PAC, a Democratic group, was working to request numerous absentee ballots as well. Republicans say McCready must show that any fraudulent ballots actually made a difference.

“The burden is on McCready to prove absent the irregularities he likely would have won the race. The burden is not on Mr. Harris or the NCGOP to prove the election system is perfect. It is not, never has been, and never will be,” tweeted Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the NC Republican Party.

Under state law, the board can call for a new election if “Irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.”

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 Libertarian Jeff Scott.

A Wake County judge denied an attempt earlier this year by Harris to force certification through a lawsuit against the Board of Elections.

When the board votes this week, some expect a deadlock between its three Democrats and two Republicans. It takes four votes to call for a new election and three to certify an election. Democrats say that could send the matter to the U.S. House, which has a final say over its membership. Republican say a deadlock means Harris’ victory would have to be certified.

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Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.