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Months after Election Day, N.C. officials grapple with possible ballot fraud

Election Day occurred more than three months ago, but North Carolina's 9th Congressional District has still not certified a winner, as state officials try to determine whether an operative of Republican candidate Mark Harris' campaign handled ballots illegally. Harris received only 905 more votes than Democrat Dan McCready in unofficial results. Judy Woodruff talks to NPR's Miles Parks for more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been more than three months since Election Day, but voters in North Carolina's Ninth Congressional District still don't know who their congressman is.

    Today, state election officials held the second day of hearings to determine whether they can certify the results, where Republican Mark Harris defeated Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes.

    Miles Parks from NPR has been inside the hearings, and he joins me now from Raleigh.

    Miles Parks, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    So, what are we learning? What are you hearing and learning in these hearings on what happened?

  • Miles Parks:

    So the investigation is focused on really one man. McCrae Dowless is his name.

    He was a political operative hired by Republican Mark Harris' campaign basically to help with get-out-the-vote efforts. But state investigators have been laying out their case for the last two days, basically saying that his get-out-the-vote efforts went a lot farther than the law allows.

    Normal get-out-the-vote efforts on campaigns involve basically registering people to vote and then encouraging them to vote. Investigators say Dowless actually collected ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina. And a woman testified yesterday, saying ballots she collected, she even went as far as filling in blank races that were not filled out by the voters.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, that's my question. What evidence has the state provided that proves that Mr. Dowless broke the law?

  • Miles Parks:

    Well, we heard from a number of voters who say they provided Dowless with ballots that were unsealed.

    And we heard from one specific woman named Lisa Britt, who's actually Dowless' former step-daughter. She said Dowless paid her to collect ballots. That, in and of itself, is breaking North Carolina law. It's called ballot harvesting.

    And it calls into question a number of election integrity issues, because there's questions about whether Dowless, if he was collecting these ballots, whether he turned in all the ballots that he actually did collect, or whether he manipulated them in some way.

    The numbers showed after the election that absentee ballot numbers in Bladen County, where Dowless was based, were really skewed toward Mark Harris in such a way that it was really suspicious to election watchers nationally.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So has Dowless testified? Have we heard from him so far? The hearings go on another their day at least. Is that right?

  • Miles Parks:

    Yes, they do.

    And we heard from Dowless kind of yesterday. He was called to testify, but he declined. Basically, it was a really uncomfortable, tense moment where he stood up with his attorney. And his attorney basically said, if you have him testify, North Carolina law says he receives immunity for that testimony if you compel it from him.

    The state board went into a closed session, came out and said, we are not willing to provide immunity from prosecution for Mr. Dowless.

    Dowless is obviously in some real legal jeopardy, and they don't want to provide any outlet where he could get out of this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, now, I gather today there was testimony from someone who was defending him, though.

  • Miles Parks:

    Defending him, sort of.

    Basically, Andy Yates is the man's name. He ran a political consulting firm that was the middleman between Dowless and Republican Mark Harris. He paid Dowless more than $100,000 for his get-out-the-vote services. Yates said he knew nothing about Dowless' action — illegal actions.

    He said, he thought everything Dowless was doing was legal and Dowless had assured him — they spoke almost every single day. He had assured him that everything he was doing was legal. But Yates also said, after watching testimony yesterday, he doesn't know if he believes anything Dowless told him over the past year that they have been talking.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the number of ballots that may have been mishandled in some way, is that a number that could override the margin that exists today? We said, what, 903 — 905 votes?

  • Miles Parks:

    Right, 905 votes is the magic number that Mark Harris defeated Dan McCready by.

    It's really still unclear whether the number of ballots Dowless handled actually hits that number. We know that either Dowless or people paid by Dowless turned in registration forms for more than 1,000 voters. But it's still unclear how many ballots Dowless collected and how many he turned in.

    It's really unclear actually whether we're ever going to know that number. And Republicans say, if the number — if the investigators do not show enough evidence to say ballots were affected to get even close to that 905-votes margin, then Harris should be certified.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, clearly a lot of eyes on these hearings, and, as you say, they are going into tomorrow?

  • Miles Parks:

    Yes, they are.

    It's really unclear how long this is going to go. They have basically been — it started out as potentially a one-day or two-day hearing. It's been extended to tomorrow. They say they have the room reserved until Thursday. We're basically taking this day by day.

    Testimony has been going fairly slowly. They have gone through less than a dozen witnesses. And there's dozens more that both candidates have requested to testify.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of eyes on that hearing.

    Miles Parks with NPR, thank you.

  • Miles Parks:

    Thank you.

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