North Carolina hearing on alleged election fraud enters third day

(Reuters) – North Carolina election officials were to hear a third day of testimony about an investigation into an alleged election fraud scheme led by a Republican operative to sway a close and still unsettled congressional race.

FILE PHOTO: Mark Harris waits to be introduced during a volunteer meeting and rally at the Ardmore Auditorium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, April 8, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Keane/File Photo

The probe into the disputed Nov. 6 election for the state’s 9th Congressional District seat has uncovered an unlawful absentee ballot scheme by an operative for Republican candidate Mark Harris, according to testimony at the hearing that could prompt a new vote.

The seat has remained vacant since state officials refused to certify Harris’ apparent victory over Democratic rival Dan McCready by 905 votes out of 282,717 ballots cast.

The five-member State Board of Elections, which must decide if the evidence warrants a new election, heard on Monday that Republican operative Leslie McCrae Dowless hired workers to collect absentee ballot requests from voters and then return to retrieve the ballots, in violation of state law.

In some instances, the paid workers falsely signed as witnesses and filled in votes for contests left blank at Dowless’ home or office, said Kim Strach, executive director of the elections board.

Andy Yates, founder and partner of consultancy Red Dome Group, testified on Tuesday he paid Dowless more than $130,000 for his work for the Harris campaign.

Dowless hired workers to collect absentee ballot requests, among other duties, Yates said. But Yates said he never paid Dowless to collect actual ballots, adding he would have reported such activity to the state.

“Mr. Dowless told me that he knew it was illegal to collect ballots, and that he told all of his workers that it was illegal to collect ballots,” Yates said.

Dowless’ lawyer has said he did nothing wrong.

Dallas Woodhouse, director of the state Republican party, told reporters the testimony did not support calling for a new election, either due to affected ballots or overall fairness concerns.

Republicans have pushed for the board to certify Harris as the district’s representative. The U.S. House of Representatives would then determine whether to seat him.

McCready’s lawyer Marc Elias, one of the nation’s top election law specialists, said the evidence had revealed “massive election fraud” that justified a new election.

If Democrats pick up the seat, they would widen their 235-197 majority in the House after taking control of the chamber from President Donald Trump’s Republicans in November.

Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

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