A Republican operative, who last year rounded up votes for a GOP candidate running for Congress, conducted an illegal and well-funded ballot-harvesting operation, North Carolina's elections director said Monday. The director's testimony came on the first day of a hearing into whether mail-in ballots were tampered with in a race for the state's 9th Congressional District seat that saw Republican Mark Harris narrowly defeat Democrat Dan McCready. The race wasn't certified, leaving the country's only congressional election without a declared winner, per the AP. The elections board is expected to either declare a winner or order a new election after the hearing. Harris held a slim lead over McCready in unofficial results following November's election, but the state elections board refused to certify the contest after allegations of potential ballot manipulation surfaced.
A probe targeted a political operative working for Harris' campaign named Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. He paid locals he recruited $125 for every 50 mail-in ballots they collected in Bladen and Robeson counties and turned in to him, state elections chief Kim Strach said. That means they could have been altered before being counted. It's illegal in North Carolina for anyone other than a guardian or close family member to handle a voter's ballot. Harris received 679 mail-in ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties, compared to 652 for McCready, Strach said. But McCready's lawyers contend nearly 1,200 other mail-in ballots were sent to voters and never returned—enough to erase Harris' 905-vote lead after Election Day. Four of the five members on the elections board—composed of three Democrats and two Republicans—would need to agree a new election is necessary. (Read more North Carolina stories.)