By Marti Maguire
RALEIGH, N.C. (Reuters) – North Carolina poll workers told election officials on Tuesday they illegally viewed early election results last year, the latest evidence in a probe of voting irregularities in a still unsettled congressional race.
The investigation into the disputed Nov. 6 election for the state’s 9th Congressional District seat also 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.
Poll worker Agnes Willis told the five-member State Board of Elections in Raleigh on Tuesday that she and other poll workers viewed early results in the Bladen County sheriff’s race before the general election.
North Carolina law prohibits running voting results before the general election. Bladen County is one of two counties at the center of the probe involving the congressional race.
The board, 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 consultants 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.
North Carolina Democrats want a new election, while Republicans have pushed for the board to certify Harris as the district’s congress member. The U.S. House of Representatives would then determine whether to seat him.
If the 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 Marti Maguire; Writing by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, David Gregorio and James Dalgleish)