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Monday January 27th, 2020 7:18PM

N. Carolina poll workers: County's results counted early

By The Associated Press
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Disarray in the administration of the country's last undecided congressional election was illustrated Tuesday when three poll workers testified some votes were counted days ahead of Election Day.

North Carolina's State Board of Elections heard the testimony as part of a hearing that could result in either a new election being called for the 9th District or the Republican candidate being declared the winner.

The testimony came a day after the board heard evidence the election was also marred by falsified signatures, disappearing documents, and blank ballots that were filled in by people hired by the Republican candidate.

The board heard Tuesday from Bladen County poll workers who admitted tallying results on the Saturday before Election Day when early, in-person voting ended.

That's contrary to proper practice. The poll workers, Agnes Willis and Coy Mitchell Edwards, said that while they and others could see who had the early lead in Bladen County sheriff's race, they didn't tell anyone.

That testimony contradicted the account of another poll worker, Michele Maultsby, who said earlier Tuesday that she never saw anyone view the tape listing the voting results that Saturday. Agnes Willis must have made an honest mistake when she said people saw the early voting totals, Maultsby said.

State elections director Kim Strach said investigators didn't find evidence that anyone else was tipped off early about the vote totals. But the practice of early counting raises questions about the vulnerability of the county's voting results.

After the hearing ends, the state board will have to decide whether ballot fraud was unfortunate but tolerable, or whether to order a new election in the congressional district that runs from Charlotte through several counties to the east.

Strach testified Monday that a political operative hired by Republican Mark Harris led "a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme" in last year's general election in rural Bladen and Robeson counties, which are part of the congressional district, state elections director Kim

The operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., was called to testify Monday, but his attorney refused to put him on the stand without legal protection against prosecution for events he described. The board refused.

The first of what could be a days-long hearing produced Dowless' workers testifying that they sometimes filled in votes on unfinished, unsealed mail-in ballots. But there was scant evidence that Harris knew about it or even benefited.

Harris narrowly leads Democrat Dan McCready in unofficial results. But the race wasn't certified in November after rumors of Dowless' operation focusing on mail-in ballots. The elections board is expected to either declare a winner or order a new election after the hearing.

Dowless was hired to produce votes for Harris and Bladen County Sheriff Jim McVicker, but his methods last year included paying people to visit potential voters who had received absentee ballots and getting them to hand over those ballots, whether completed or not, Dowless worker Lisa Britt testified Monday.

It's illegal in North Carolina for anyone other than a guardian or close family member to handle a voter's ballot because of the risk that it could be altered before being counted.

Britt testified she collected about three dozen sometimes unfinished ballots and handed them to Dowless, who kept them at his home and office for days or longer before they were turned in, said Britt, whose mother was formerly married to Dowless. While the congressional and sheriff's races were almost always marked by voters who turned in unsealed ballots, Britt said she would fill in down-ballot local races — favoring Republicans — to prevent local elections board workers from suspecting Dowless' activities.

Dowless paid local people like Britt $125 for every 50 mail-in ballots they collected in Bladen and Robeson counties and turned in to him, Strach said.

The operation's scope allowed Dowless to collect nearly $84,000 in consulting fees over five months leading into last year's general election, said Strach, adding that in addition to reviewing financial and phone records, investigators questioned 142 voters in the south-central North Carolina counties.

Four of the five members on the elections 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.

___

Follow Emery P. Dalesio on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/emery%20dalesio .

___

This story corrects the spelling of the last name of Bladen County Sheriff Jim McVicker.

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