Updated at 7:12 p.m. ET
Three months after the midterm elections, North Carolina officials began publicly laying out their evidence for the first time that the outcome in the state's 9th Congressional District may have been tainted by election fraud.
"The evidence will show that a coordinated, unlawful, and substantially-resourced absentee ballot scheme operated during the 2018 general election," said North Carolina State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach, in her opening statement Monday at the beginning of a multi-day hearing to consider evidence that investigators have been gathering since late last year.
Monday's hearing kicked off with a key witness detailing how the alleged scheme worked and suggesting that the operative who was behind the absentee ballot operation sought to obstruct the state investigation into it.
It ended for the day with that operative declining to testify before the board.
In the unofficial tally for the 9th District race, Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. But the election has been tainted by allegations that an operative hired by Harris collected and potentially manipulated some vote-by-mail ballots.
Operative accused of trying to "obstruct" investigation
Shortly after the 2018 midterms, the State Board of Elections voted on bipartisan lines to delay certifying the race and open an investigation. McCrae Dowless was named a person of interest by the board shortly thereafter.
A number of voters have come forward to say that Dowless or people paid by Dowless picked up their vote-by-mail ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina, accusations that were again aired at Monday's hearing.
Strach said investigators spoke with more than 140 voters and 30 witnesses as part of the state's investigation.
She said that not only did Dowless pay people to pick up ballots, $125 per 50 ballots collected, but that actions taken were meant to "obstruct the investigation and testimony provided at this hearing."
The first witness called by the State Board was Lisa Britt, who said she was paid by Dowless to register people to vote and to collect ballots.
Britt described how Dowless gave her specific instructions for how to return ballots so as to not "raise red flags" with the State Board of Elections: using post offices close to the voters, and never mailing more than nine or ten ballot envelopes at a time.
She said she had "no idea" how many ballots she picked up in total.
Britt also described how Dowless tried to interfere with the investigation, saying that he told her and others "as long as we all stick together, we'll all be fine because they don't have anything on us."
In a particularly dramatic moment, Britt described how Dowless called her over to his house last week and handed her a letter he wanted her to read at Monday's hearing.
"I can tell you that I haven't done anything wrong in the election and McCrae Dowless has never told me to do anything wrong, and to my knowledge he has never done anything wrong," the note read. "But I am taking the 5th Amendment because I don't have an attorney and I feel like you will try to trip me up."
Britt finished by saying she felt that she had, in fact, done things wrong, but not knowingly. Then she gave an emotional defense of Harris.
"I think you've got one innocent person in this whole thing, who had no clue what was going on, and he's the one getting a real bad deal here and that's Mr. Mark Harris," Britt said.
Harris could be seen shaking his head after Britt's testimony.
"Particularly Mr. Dowless"
With less than 30 minutes to go before the board was set to adjourn for the day, the state board called Dowless to the witness stand.
But he would not testify.
His attorney, Cynthia Singletary, told the board that he was in attendance at the hearing in accordance with the subpoena he received, but that they had not compelled testimony from him.
If they were to do that, according to North Carolina law, that would mean offering him immunity from being prosecuted in the future for that testimony.
"This board is unwilling to give a witness here, and particularly Mr. Dowless, immunity from his testimony," Cordle said.
Dowless was then dismissed.
Singletary told reporters after the hearing was adjourned for the day that Dowless would "love to testify under the right conditions," but she did not elaborate on what those would be.
Election results in Bladen County, where Dowless is based, also indicated something was amiss after results were tabulated.
Harris won 61 percent of the vote-by-mail ballots in Bladen County, despite only 19 percent of the voters who voted by mail being registered Republican. For Harris to have ended up with that 61 percent, he would have had to win every single Republican and unaffiliated voter and some registered Democrats as well, leading to questions about whether ballots were manipulated or tossed out.
Republicans have pointed to Harris' 905-vote margin, saying there's no evidence Dowless' operation involved enough ballots to overturn that margin. But state investigators disputed that notion early on, saying Dowless or people who worked for Dowless submitted at least 1,019 absentee ballot requests in the 9th District.
Harris has said he was in frequent contact with Dowless throughout his campaign, even saying he had a "pastorly" relationship to him, but he says he knew of no illegal activity going on. Harris told the Associated Press last week that he was unaware of Dowless' criminal record, which included convictions for insurance fraud and perjury, and of Dowless' previous history of unsavory election tactics.
The State Board of Elections investigated potential election fraud in Bladen County in 2016, and Dowless testified at a public hearing, which was featured in an episode of the nationally syndicated radio show and podcast This American Life.
The board forwarded its investigative findings to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina in 2017.
"Our findings to date suggest that individuals and potentially groups of individuals engaged in efforts to manipulate election results through the absentee ballot process," Stratch, the State Board of Elections executive director, wrote in January 2017. "The evidence we have obtained suggest that these efforts may have taken place in the past and if not addressed will likely continue for future elections."
Potential next steps
The State Board of Elections, which consists of three Democrats and two Republicans, is expected to vote at the end of the hearing on how to proceed.
It's unclear however, when that will be. Both Harris and McCready have submitted lists of dozens of people their attorneys would like to question, and the board was only able to get through a few witnesses on Monday.
In terms of actions by the board, to certify Harris would require three votes, meaning at least one Democrat would have to vote in favor. And to hold a new election would require four votes, meaning at least one Republican would have to vote in favor.
If the board is deadlocked after the hearing, Harris would be certified according to North Carolina law. But Democrats who now hold the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives have indicated they would not seat Harris if questions remain about the election's fairness. In that case, the House could deem the seat vacant, which would then give Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, the authority to call a new election.
In the case of a whole new race, constituents in the 9th District will probably go much of 2019 without representation in Congress. Experts say between the length of filing periods and new primaries, a new House member probably wouldn't be seated until late summer or fall.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Three months after voters went to the polls in the midterm elections, North Carolina's 9th District still does not have representation in the U.S. House. Republican Mark Harris led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in the unofficial tally, but back in December, the State Board of Elections opened an investigation into potential election fraud there instead of certifying the race. And today, we are getting a look at what investigators have uncovered.
NPR's Miles Parks has been in the State Board of Elections hearing in Raleigh all day. Hey there, Miles.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: Hi. So what did we learn today that might move this whole situation forward?
PARKS: So media reports have been swirling about this race for months, as you know. But we'd heard absolutely nothing from the state board about what they'd found, and they broke that silence today. State Board of - Executive Director Kim Strach opened the hearing with a presentation where she said, quote, "the evidence will show that a coordinated unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme operated during the 2018 general election." That scheme, she says, was orchestrated by a political operative named McCrae Dowless who was working on behalf of Mark Harris' campaign.
Strach said Dowless paid people to collect ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina. And there's also some question about whether all the ballots he collected were turned in or manipulated in some way. One of the people who says Dowless paid her was Lisa Britt. She's Dowless's former stepdaughter, and she was the first witness to testify today. And her testimony took up most of the day.
KELLY: OK. So she obviously had a lot to say. What did she reveal about this reported operation?
PARKS: So she says she was paid by Dowless to collect ballots and to register people to vote, and that matched what investigators said, which was that there was a system in place - $125 per 50 absentee ballots collected. I should note that this was a very emotional testimony for Britt, as I said, former stepdaughter to McCrae Dowless. She kept saying how she thought her father would never have her do anything illegal. And this is with McCrae Dowless sitting in the room watching her testimony.
Britt also laid out how Dowless has worked to obstruct the state board's investigation. She said he held a meeting at his house where he told people he paid that they had to stick together. And then maybe the most striking moment of the day came when Britt said that even this past Thursday, Dallas had her over to his house, and he gave her this piece of paper that had what he wanted her to say today, basically that she didn't do anything wrong; he didn't do anything wrong and that she was taking the Fifth Amendment.
That makes it really hard for anyone to argue that Dowless didn't know that what he was doing was wrong. And Britt also talked about how there were specific instructions for how to turn in the ballots as to not raise any red flags. That's her quote, "red flags," with the State Board of Elections.
KELLY: I mean, just quickly, is Dowless expected to testify at some future point?
PARKS: It doesn't look like it. He was called toady but voluntarily, and he declined. To require him to testify would mean offering him immunity according to the state board. And Chair Robert Cordle said he was not willing to offer that at this point.
KELLY: OK. And to the big question, was there any indication so far that Harris, the Republican candidate - that he knew about this alleged operation?
PARKS: There weren't any indications of that revealed today, though Dowless has been investigated before for his election tactics. And he also has a number of felonies, including for fraud, on his record. But Britt actually made a point to say she didn't think Harris knew anything about the operation. Here's a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LISA BRITT: I think you've got one innocent person in this whole thing who had no clue as to what was going on, and he's the one getting it really bad here, and that's Mr. Mark Harris.
KELLY: So briefly, Miles, how does this end? Are the people in North Carolina's 9th District ever going to see someone sitting in that seat in Congress?
PARKS: Well, the State Board of Elections is expected to vote at the end of the hearing. They could vote to have - hold a new election. They could vote to certify Harris. Or if they're deadlocked, it would go to the U.S. House of Representatives, which would then have the opportunity to investigate or call a new election themselves.
KELLY: NPR's Miles Parks reporting from Raleigh. Thanks very much.
PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.