RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Evidence collected over months and being unveiled Monday could reveal whether the nation's last undecided congressional election was either tainted by so much ballot-tampering that a winner cannot be declared - or that that the actual winner was unfairly denied the seat.
North Carolina's state elections board — reassembled last month after an unrelated legal challenge found the previous version unconstitutional — holds at least two days of hearings when investigators will describe their findings into allegations that a political operative may have tampered with or even discarded mail-in ballots.
The State Board of Elections said it could decide after hearing the evidence whether to certify Republican Mark Harris as the winner over Democrat Dan McCready. It also could order a new election in the 9th Congressional District.
The previous elections board twice refused to declare Harris the winner after hearing reports of irregularities just before the November 2016 election in rural Bladen County, home of a political operative named Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr.
Dowless' vote-getting work has drawn attention for years. But with Harris leading McCready by only 905 votes out of nearly 278,000 cast, Dowless has come under intense focus.
"You likely wouldn't know as much about these allegations if it hadn't been such a close race," said Martin Kifer, the political science department chairman at North Carolina's High Point University.
One of the methods participants said Dowless used was to hire workers to collect absentee ballots from voters who received them and then turn them over to Dowless, according to an elections board investigation of the 2016 campaign.
One witness interviewed by investigators last year said he saw Dowless handling a sheaf of blank ballots and others that may have been completed and held to turn in later. Workers took the ballots, whether completed or not, and handed them over to Dowless, according to sworn affidavits signed by multiple voters after the November election.
In addition, two Bladen County women told WSOC-TV in Charlotte last fall that Dowless had directed them to do the same.
State election law prohibits anyone other than a guardian or close family member to handle mail-in ballots.
Former Bladen County sheriff's deputy Kenneth Simmons told The Associated Press that he met Dowless at a meeting of local Republicans ahead of the May 2018 primary. Simmons said he was given a list of voters to approach on behalf of the candidate for sheriff he supported. He said he was also handed blank absentee ballots with sections highlighted in yellow that Dowless said needed to be completed.
"He highlighted it, for where to fill it out, and he said as long as they got that much of it he'd do the rest," Simmons said in a phone interview.
Dowless declined an interview request and his lawyer did not respond to messages.
Harris' team said in a legal briefing submitted to the elections board last week that the board should certify him the winner no matter what Dowless did for the campaign.
"Technical irregularities —like ballot harvesting — do not provide enough reason to order a new election," the attorneys said.
The elections board also is expected to hear about the unusual number of absentee ballots that voters requested but never returned. A Harvard University elections expert is expected to testify that absentee ballots in Bladen and neighboring Robeson counties disappeared at a rate 2 ½ to three times higher than the rest of the congressional district or elsewhere in North Carolina.
Of the absentee ballots that were returned, Harris "greatly overperformed" in Bladen and Robeson counties when compared to what might have been expected based on patterns elsewhere in the state. McCready "greatly underperformed," said Prof. Stephen Ansolabehere.
"Statistical tests show that these deviations are extremely unlikely to have arisen by chance," Ansolabehere said in an affidavit filed on behalf of McCready.
Dowless' activities could lead the state elections board to "order a new election if the results are in doubt even if the candidates had nothing to do with any malfeasance," or wrongful conduct, said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine.
Four of the five members on the board — composed of three Democrats and two Republicans — would need to agree a new election is necessary.
If that doesn't happen, McCready's lawyers said state officials should send their findings to the Democrat-dominated U.S. House and let it decide whether Harris should be seated — arguing that the U.S. Constitution gives the House authority over the elections and qualifications of its members.
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