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Republican Mark Harris to be called next to testify in 9th district election hearing

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Election fraud investigation

Read more about the investigation into the 9th Congressional District

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Note: The State Board of Elections is holding hearings Monday and Tuesday that could resolve the disputed race in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. This story will be updated throughout Tuesday’s hearing to reflect the latest developments.

You can find the full live updates from Monday’s hearing online here.

Update, 5:30 p.m.

NC Board of Elections chairman Bob Cordle said the hearing into the 9th district will likely continue into Thursday.

“I hope that’s not necessary,” Cordle said. “But it’s looking increasingly likely.”

Cordle had initially hoped to wrap up the hearing and vote Tuesday on whether to hold a new election or certify the race. Cordle also said Republican Mark Harris will be the next witness called.

With Andy Yates’ cross-examination set to continue, Harris would likely be called Wednesday morning.

Update, 4:44 p.m.

Yates: Absentee margins didn’t seem unusual

Questioned about large absentee ballot margins accumulated by candidates who hired McCrae Dowless in Bladen County, a Republican consultant said he didn’t think they were unusual.

Andy Yates, owner of Red Dome Group, was Mark Harris’ primary strategist. He said he analyzed the 2016 primary — which Harris lost to incumbent Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger — for Harris.

In that race, Todd Johnson, who finished third, employed Dowless. He won 221 out of 225 absentee ballots cast in the Republican primary in Bladen County.

“It’s a good, strong result,” said Yates.

“It didn’t strike me as odd. It made me wonder what he did in that county...I remember asking Dr. Harris about it,” Yates said. “He did mention McCrae at that point.”

Harris has said in interviews that he hired Dowless in 2017 after seeing those results. In the 2018 primary, Harris had Dowless working for him to drum up support via an absentee by mail ballot program. That year, Harris racked up 437 absentee votes to just 17 for Pittenger in Bladen.

“That was the performance we expected based off the resources we put into Bladen County,” Yates said of the 2018 results.

“Everybody on the Harris campaign was happy and boasting about the fact that we were one of only two campaigns to defeat a Republican incumbent in the primary,” Yates said.

He said Harris and his wife credited the victory to their strength in Union and Bladen counties. They also said Dowless had done well. “They felt that he had done a good job,” Yates said.

Update, 3:37 p.m.

Dowless was a ‘needy person who needed validation,’ consultant says

Political consultant Andy Yates said Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless would call him daily to talk politics.

Yates, owner of Cornelius-based Red Dome Group, was the chief consultant for Republican Mark Harris in his 2018 campaign for Congress.

”He was a needy person who needed validation to know Dr. Harris was happy with him,” Yates said of Dowless. “He was a political junkie ... Politics was his thing and he didn’t have anything else going on.”

Dowless called daily between 6 and 7 a.m., Yates said. He wanted to talk about absentee ballot requests, polling numbers, fundraising numbers and politics in general. Yates said he didn’t always pick up, which would upset Dowless and prompt rare text messages (Dowless preferred talking on the phone to text and didn’t email, Yates said).

“Call me back. Why won’t you answer the phone? Are you mad at me?” Dowless would text, Yates said. “That was usually the extent of his text conversations.”

During those early morning talks, Yates and Dowless talked about the number of absentee ballot request forms he had collected — not ballots themselves, Yates testified.

On Monday, worker Lisa Britt testified that she overheard Dowless talking with Yates about the number of ballots he had and votes that had come in. It’s legal to collect absentee ballot request forms, but not the ballots themselves.

Update, 2:39 p.m.

‘He was in regular communication with Dr. Harris’

The campaign consultant who employed McCrae Dowless testified Tuesday that Mark Harris was in regular contact with the Bladen County operative.

Andy Yates, owner of Cornelius-based Red Dome Group, said Dowless was hired by Harris before Yates was brought on to the campaign. Payment arrangements had already been worked out.

“At the time Dr. Harris told me about McCrae Dowless, I do not recall ever hearing his name before,” Yates said.

Dowless was paid $1,200 per month during the primary and $1,625 a month during the general election, Yates said. Dowless was also paid $4 per absentee ballot request form his workers collected during the primary and $5 per absentee ballot request form during the general election.

It’s not illegal to collect absentee ballot request forms — just absentee ballots themselves. Paying a campaign worker per ballot request form is unusual, however, and Yates said he hadn’t worked on any similar absentee ballot solicitation programs.

Yates said Dowless was also reimbursed for office expenses, worker payments and other expenses, such as utilities. He said Dowless had no contract with Yates or the Harris campaign and provided no written records or receipts to verify his expenses.

“The Harris campaign was comfortable with that,” said Yates. “No one asked for the documentation.”

Yates said that Harris and Dowless spoke regularly and Harris was never uncomfortable with Dowless’ lack of documentation.

“His word was good enough for Dr. Harris,” said Yates. “He was in regular communication with Dr. Harris.”

Yates also said Dowless told him that he knew collecting absentee ballots is illegal and that he would not do so.

“He knew that was illegal and made sure all his folks knew that was illegal,” Yates said Dowless told him of ballot-harvesting. “You could not take that ballot and walk to the mailbox ... he never touched one and his folks never touched one.”

Yates said he was comfortable with Dowless during the campaign.

“No red flags. He sounded like someone who knew the law very well,” Yates said. “He sounded like he had run all the traps.”

Witnesses testify on early voting results tape

Update, 12:47 p.m.

Much of the controversy in the 9th district hearing Tuesday focused on how much of a tape that showed early voting results was unrolled.

Three witnesses testified about the tape, which Board of Elections staff said was improperly tabulated the Saturday after early voting ended but before Election Day.

The results tape was rolled up, like a receipt, when it was printed by a vote-tabulating machine. The seemingly arcane dispute over how much of the tape was unrolled could be important if it shows early voting results in the McCready-Harris race were visible, and thus could have been leaked.

Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the Bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, left, unfurls early voting tabulations, during the second day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com

Witnesses gave varying accounts of how much of the tape was unrolled so judges could sign the bottom.

“As it prints off it goes like that, because it’s coming out of the machine,” said Coy Mitchell Edwards, a poll worker who said he signed the tape. “Wherever the end of it is when you quit printing, that’s when you tear it off.”

On the witness stand, he demonstrated twice how he unrolled the tape. The congressional results were close to the top of the tape. The Bladen County sheriff’s race results — which two workers testified they saw — were in the middle.

“Right dab in the middle?” asked McCready attorney Marc Elias.

“Pretty much,” said Mitchell.

Agnes Willis, another poll worker who said she saw early voting results on the tape, testified that about 12 to 18 inches of the tape were unrolled.

Questions over affidavit

Update, 11:40 a.m.

Poll worker Agnes Willis detailed the confusing process by which she gave an affidavit alleging early vote totals leaked before the election.

“How’d this document come to be?” Mark Harris attorney David Freedman asked Willis, pointing to Willis’ affidavit.

“That is a good question. I don’t know until this day,” Willis said.

Willis said that after the election investigation began, she was contacted on Nov. 29 by Matt Dixon, who introduced himself as a Bladen County attorney and a Democrat. He called and asked if she could come to discuss something at his office. Willis testified that she told Dixon she could be over in an hour.

“I guess that wasn’t fast enough,” she said. He showed up at her door in under an hour, with a notary and a typed affidavit sheet.

“I remember him starting to ask me questions,” she said. “He seemed as confused as I was...and I was confused.”

Willis said she told Dixon what she knew about the early vote totals being run before the election. He hand wrote her portion of the affidavit in the first person, Willis said.

“It was his handwriting,” she said. Willis said that the affidavit accurately reflected what she told Dixon. She reviewed the narrative and signed the second page of the affidavit.

Mark Harris, Republican candidate in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional race, listens to testimony during the second day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com

Third witness testifies some early voting results improperly viewed

Update, 11:17 a.m.

Agnes Willis, another poll worker at the Bladen County early voting site, testified Tuesday that workers looked at some early voting results before Election Day.

Willis said that shortly after the last person voted the Saturday before Election Day, poll workers started shutting down the site at 1:30 p.m.

They ran a receipt-like “tape” that tabulated early voting results. Workers testified that was standard procedure in Bladen County, even though state investigators have said the results should not be tabulated until after the election.

“It was on the table,” Willis said of the early voting tape. “I heard another individual say ‘Oh my God.’ So I turned around to see what he was referring to.”

The voice came from Tojie King, a Democratic poll worker. He was looking at the early voting results from the Bladen County Sheriff’s race.

“He was looking at the tape...I walked over to see what he was looking at...He had his finger on the sheriff’s race.” said Willis. “I was just amazed he was looking at the sheriff’s race and the comments he made...He said I thought this black guy had it.”

Republican sheriff candidate Jim McVicker’s Democratic opponent in the race was black.

“The sheriff’s race in Bladen was such a big thing, I said I don’t think anybody should be looking at these numbers,” she said.

“It was extended,” said Willis. The tape was extended about 12 to 18 inches, Willis said, but she wasn’t sure exactly what other races could be seen. The other poll workers, except chief judge Michele Maultsby, all also looked at the early voting results, Willis said. “I didn’t come here to tell a lie. I came to tell the truth,” she said. “The other people did look at it.”

Willis said she didn’t discuss the results with anyone except her daughter.

“The tape was pulled, and I don’t think anyone should be privy to those numbers,” she said. “I didn’t feel right, but nobody told us not to do it.”

Kim Strach, the executive director of the Board of Elections, replied: “Your feeling was correct.”

Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the Bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, left, questions a witness during the second day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com

Witness: Early voting results improperly compiled

Update, 10:50 a.m.

A second witness testified Tuesday that early voting results were improperly compiled early and run on a voting machine “tape,” and that he saw early voting results in one local race.

Coy Mitchell Edwards, a poll worker at the Bladen County early voting site, said he ran the receipt-like “tape” after early voting closed the Saturday before Election Day.

That tape shouldn’t be run until after the election, N.C. State Board of Elections staff said.

He unrolled the tape to sign his name at the bottom — and saw the results of the sheriff’s race.

“I just happened to see it, and noticed. It wasn’t like I was looking for it,” he said.

Republican sheriff candidate Jim McVicker also employed McCrae Dowless, the Bladen County political operative at the center of the 9th district scandal.

“Did anyone ask you about the results?” Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach asked.

“No ma’am,” Edwards answered.

He said that he did not tell anyone the early voting results in the sheriff’s race.

Marc Elias, attorney for Democrat Dan McCready, questioned Mitchell about how he could have seen the sheriff’s race — which was “smack dab in the middle” of the long, rolled-up tape — and not other results.

“If you didn’t flatten it out, how would you have just come across the sheriff race and not the others?” he said.

“I didn’t look for it, but I saw it, and it registered,” said Mitchell. “I kept going down till I got to where we sign. Then I stopped and signed off on it.”

Mitchell testified that the early voting results were run improperly in past elections as well.

“Has it been your practice in every election you worked to run those results at the end of the night?” Strach asked.

“Pretty much, yeah,” said Mitchell.

Early voting results leak

The first witness called Tuesday testified that she didn’t see anyone view early voting results after polls closed in Bladen County — but the county’s election director did ask her who was leaking the results.

Michele Maultsby supervised the single early voting site, at a Bladen County library. She said Tuesday that she secured a tape with early voting results at the end of the day and took it to the county’s election headquarters.

Agness Willis-Judge, another pollworker, submitted an affidavit saying that people had viewed the early voting results. That’s not allowed, because knowing early voting results could give a candidate an advantage heading into Election Day.

“Not on my watch,” Maultsby said on the stand.

She said that she took the results tape and other sensitive election materials and locked them in a “treasure chest.”

“I took the treasure chest and I handed it to Cynthia Shaw,” the former Bladen County elections director, Maultsby said.

That was about an hour after polls closed on the final day of early voting.

Shaw pulled Maultsby into an office and asked her an urgent question, Maultsby said: Who was leaking results?

“When I went back to the office to turn in all my paperwork, we turned in the tape and the memory card,” she said. “She questioned me about it. She fired me up about it...She wanted to know who told something about it. I said not on my watch, uh-uh.”

Maultsby said Shaw didn’t tell her what race results had allegedly leaked, or to whom.

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