North Carolina holds hearing on undecided US House race


    FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2018 file photo, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, N.C. The Republican in the nation’s last undecided congressional election said Monday, Feb. 11, 2019 he recruited a political operative now at the center of a ballot fraud investigation because he produced election results in his rural North Carolina county and other Republicans vouched for him. Mark Harris said he didn’t know before November’s election that state elections board investigators found evidence that operative Dowless Jr. may have illegally handled ballots in 2016. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, File)

    RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's elections board is holding a hearing Monday on ballot fraud allegations in the nation's last undecided congressional election.

    The hearing, slated to last at least two days, will include the results of a monthslong investigation into allegations that a political operative tampered with mail-in ballots in a rural county. Republican Mark Harris holds a slim lead over Democrat Dan McCready in unofficial results, but the state has refused to certify the election.

    At the end of the process, the State Board of Elections is expected to either certify a winner in the race or order a new election in the 9th Congressional District that runs from the Charlotte area through several counties to the east.

    Unofficial results have shown Harris leading McCready by only 905 votes out of nearly 278,000 cast. But the state has twice refused to declare Harris the winner after hearing reports of irregularities just before the November 2016 election in rural Bladen County, home of a political operative named Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr .

    One of the methods participants said Dowless used was to hire workers to collect absentee ballots from voters who received them and then turn them over to Dowless, according to an elections board investigation of the 2016 campaign.

    State election law prohibits anyone other than a guardian or close family member to handle mail-in ballots.

    Harris' team said in a legal briefing submitted to the elections board last week that the board should certify him the winner no matter what Dowless did for the campaign.

    "Technical irregularities —like ballot harvesting — do not provide enough reason to order a new election," the attorneys said.

    The elections board also is expected to hear about the unusual number of absentee ballots that voters requested but never returned. A Harvard University elections expert is expected to testify that absentee ballots in Bladen and neighboring Robeson counties disappeared at a rate 2 1/2 to three times higher than the rest of the congressional district or elsewhere in North Carolina.

    Four of the five members on the board — composed of three Democrats and two Republicans — would need to agree a new election is necessary.

    If that doesn't happen, McCready's lawyers said state officials should send their findings to the Democrat-dominated U.S. House and let it decide whether Harris should be seated — arguing that the U.S. Constitution gives the House authority over the elections and qualifications of its members.

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