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.
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