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The North Carolina fraud investigation: What we know and what could come next

Months after the midterms, an election-fraud investigation in North Carolina's 9th District is focusing on an operative who worked for the GOP candidate. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Sarah Hashemi, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post, Photo: Justin Kase Conder/The Washington Post)
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What’s particularly remarkable about the fraud investigation unfolding in North Carolina, centered on the results of the state’s 9th Congressional District contest last month, is how quickly the alleged effort to collect absentee ballots from voters and possibly alter or destroy them came to light.

Part of this, as elections expert Michael McDonald pointed out on Monday, is a function of the state’s transparency about ballots cast and returned. Part of it is that any effort involving more than a handful of people offers lots of opportunities for details about a scheme to come to light. Part of it appears to be how obvious the anomalies in voting patterns were.

Before we get into what’s known and what may come next, it’s worth highlighting an implication of the points above. If a possible effort to alter a few hundred absentee votes came to light shortly after an election, the idea that millions of votes were cast illegally in 2016 without even a whiff of evidence that it occurred is obviously untrue.

But we've gotten ahead of ourselves. Here's what we know about what happened in North Carolina — and what may come next.

What we know

The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner and Kirk Ross are on the ground in North Carolina, reporting on the still-unfolding investigation. On Monday, they wrote about the person at the center of the controversy, an election worker named Leslie McCrae Dowless who worked for the Republican congressional candidate, Mark Harris.

Dowless, who was convicted of fraud and perjury on nonelection-related charges two decades ago, ran a field operation in the fall out of a storefront in Bladen County, N.C. According to Gardner and Ross, that appeared to include two parts: asking voters in the county to request absentee ballots; and, when the ballots were received, collecting the ballots with the promise to mail them in.

Joe Bruno of WSOC-TV in Charlotte spoke with a woman, Ginger Eason, who said she worked for Dowless’s operation. She explained that she picked up ballots from voters and dropped them off with Dowless. Asked if she was told to talk about particular candidates, she mentioned Harris and the county sheriff, Jim McVicker, for whom Dowless also worked.

Under North Carolina law, absentee ballots can be mailed or dropped off. Only voters, voters' near relatives or a voter’s legal guardian is legally allowed to drop off an absentee ballot.

Each absentee ballot must also be signed by two witnesses. Bruno’s reporting indicates that Eason herself signed 28 different ballots as a witness. Another seven people’s signatures appear a combined 167 times on ballots. That figure is out of 159 ballots, indicating that some ballots were signed only by two members of this group. Witnesses also have to identify their home addresses; five of them listed the same one-bedroom apartment.

Datesha Montgomery, 27, told The Post about being approached by a woman who collected her ballot.

“[S]he showed up and asked could she get my ballot,” Montgomery said. “I still hadn’t filled it out. I stood on the porch, and I filled it out. I put two names down, and she told me the rest wasn’t important, and she would fill it out herself.”

As we noted last week, it was the voting data that drew scrutiny to Dowless’s operation in the first place. Bladen County was the only one of the eight counties that make up the 9th District in which Harris won the mail-in absentee vote.

Mailed absentee ballots also made up much more of the total in Bladen County than in other counties in the district. As Catawba College politics professor Michael Bitzer wrote, Bladen and Robeson counties also had much higher rates of requested absentee ballots not being returned, raising questions about ballots potentially being destroyed.

But the scrutiny on Dowless also came because questions had been raised in the past, as Gardner and Ross report. Harris got to the general election by beating incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger (R) in May. That result was surprising, according to the Charlotte Observer, with Harris edging out Pittenger by less than a thousand votes.

"Harris enjoyed leads in Union and Bladen counties that had offset Pittenger's lead in Mecklenburg,” the Observer reported.

Here, via McDonald, is what the absentee voting in Bladen county looked like in the primary.

Harris beat Pittenger among mail-in ballots by 93 percentage points.

In 2016, Dowless worked for a candidate who won 211 votes from mail-in ballots in the county, compared with five for the other candidates — one of whom was Harris.

Update: On Tuesday, Bruno contacted another woman who said she worked for Dowless collecting absentee ballots.

“I don’t know what happened” to the ballots she turned in, she said, but Dowless “had stacks of them on his desk.”

The response

The North Carolina Board of Elections refused to certify the results of the 9th District race last month, pending resolution of these questions. As it stands, Harris has a 900-vote lead over Democrat Dan McCready.

The state Republican Party, meanwhile, is accusing Democrats of trying to steal the race — and using the controversy to fundraise. Bruno obtained a transcript of a call being made to possible donors:

“Hey, it is Dallas Woodhouse. I am actually calling from Chairman Hayes' phone. He had to pick up the other line cause we are trying to cobble together additional donations to the state party because we are trying to keep the Democrats from stealing the congressional race from Mark Harris.”
“They are throwing everything against the wall and it is running up expenses for us by the minute. But you know they' ll steal it if they can. And the frustrating thing to Chairman Hayes and I know you as well, this is just a test to see if they can steal North Carolina from Donald Trump in 2020. If you can give Chairman Hayes a call, please try to help us.”

Ironically, this is the same argument that was used in Florida when recount efforts were underway last month — but there, the allegation made by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and others was that the Republican Party was applying the rule of law to ferret out alleged Democratic fraud that was meant to test boundaries before 2020.

"The law requires certain reporting and transparency to occur regarding who voted when they voted and by what means they voted,” Gaetz told Breitbart about that race. “That transparency isn’t just to make us feel better. It’s the kryptonite to fraud because if we know how people are voting you’re able to triangulate against any of the [fraudsters] that would cast the illegal ballots.”

What could happen next

Gerry Cohen, former special counsel for the state assembly who helped craft some election laws, told the Observer that there had been rematches after questions were raised about an election — but never at the congressional level.

State law allows for a new election under four circumstances, one of which is if “irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.” To do so, six of the nine board of election members would have to agree that a new election was warranted. According to Cohen, that would mean a rematch between Harris and McCready.

The House of Representatives could also refuse to seat Harris, calling for a new election in the district. Were that to happen, Cohen said, the election would be fully reset, with new party primaries and a subsequent runoff. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) indicated on Tuesday that opposing Harris' being seated in the House is under consideration. (Under the Constitution, the House has some latitude to determine its membership.)

What’s at stake here is not control of Congress. Democrats easily retook the House last month, picking up 39 seats to date. What’s at stake, instead, is the integrity of the election system — precisely what President Trump claimed to be defending when he created a voter-fraud commission shortly after taking office. That commission was obviously intended to help bolster his unfounded assertions about rampant voter fraud that favored Democratic candidates (such as his 2016 opponent) and collapsed a few months after its creation.

Trump has not commented publicly on the situation in North Carolina.