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Key witness testifies to tampering with absentee ballots in N.C. House race

NBC News logo NBC News 2/19/2019 Leigh Ann Caldwell and Rich Gardella
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RALEIGH, N.C. — A key witness testified Monday that she engaged in fraudulent and illegal activity involving absentee ballots in a congressional race in North Carolina as part of a get-out-the vote operation to benefit the Republican congressional candidate in a race that is still unresolved.

In frank testimony before the North Carolina State Board of Elections, Lisa Britt said that she was paid to collect absentee ballots in the 2018 election by McCrae Dowless, a political operative hired by consultants for Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris.

Britt said some of the ballots she collected were unsealed and uncompleted and testified she filled out the options left blank for Republican candidates — an admission of vote tampering that violates North Carolina law.

a woman holding a cell phone: Lisa Britt pauses before answering a question during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation in Raleigh, North Carolina on  Feb. 18, 2019. © Juli Leonard Lisa Britt pauses before answering a question during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation in Raleigh, North Carolina on Feb. 18, 2019. The state board has been investigating allegations of such irregularities since before last November's election when Harris finished with an unofficial lead of 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready and has twice refused to certify the results.

Britt’s testimony as well as the testimony of a handful of other witnesses and the findings of the investigation unveiled Monday painted a picture of an extensive mail-in ballot harvesting effort where Dowless had a cohort of workers collect large numbers of absentee ballot request forms and ballots.

The first day of what is expected to be two or three days of testimony included a presentation of the state's investigation, which found significant questionable activity in two rural counties in the ninth congressional district — Bladen and Robeson.

“We believe that the evidence that we will provide today will show that a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme operated during the general election in Bladen and Robeson counties,” said Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the North Carolina Board of Elections.

Carolyn Forche smiling for the camera: Executive director of the Board of Elections Kim Strach during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Feb. 18, 2019. © Juli Leonard Executive director of the Board of Elections Kim Strach during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Feb. 18, 2019.

"We will also show in our investigation efforts were made to obstruct this investigation and the testimony provided at this hearing," Strach said.

At the end of the hearing the board will determine if it will certify the election or hold a new election. A new election could be called if the board finds “irregularities” that “taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.”

The investigation is centered around a key figure, Dowless, who was hired by the Red Dome Consulting Group for a “get-out-the-vote” operation for the Harris campaign, which paid Red Dome for its services.

Strach revealed that Red Dome paid Dowless $131,375 for the 2018 primary and general election, including $83,693 for the general election.

According to testimony Monday, Dowless had two components to his operation — collecting absentee ballot applications and then collecting the actual ballots. He and those he hired collected at least 788 ballot requests in Bladen County and 231 in neighboring Robeson county, according to investigation findings.

Britt, a convicted felon on probation who admitted to voting in the 2018 election despite being barred from doing so in North Carolina, is Dowless’ step-daughter. She said they have a very close father-daughter relationship, but she testified against Dowless, saying that she did simply what he directed her to do.

“I didn’t think my father would send me out to do anything illegal,” Britt said.

Britt said she was paid between $150 and $175 for the collection of 50 absentee ballot applications plus food and gas. That pay scale later changed to a flat rate of $200 per week because the work became more difficult. “A lot of people don’t want to give you their absentee ballot,” she said.

Admitting to illegal vote tampering, Britt said that she would fill out ballots she collected that weren’t fully completed. She said she recalled all of the incomplete ballots contained non-votes for lower offices, and that she would fill any omitted choices with “a vote for whoever was a Republican.”

Britt testified that once she collected absentee ballot applications, she would sign them and turn them over to Dowless either in his office or at his home. She said she would also make a copy of the applications she requested so she knew where to return to collect the voters’ actual ballots.

She also said that Dowless coached her and others as to techniques to not “throw red flags” with the election board, including putting the stamp on the right way, signing witness signatures in the same color ink, and mailing absentee ballots in small numbers.

Britt insisted that Harris had no knowledge of the operation, saying he’s “innocent.” No evidence yet presented in the hearing shows that Harris knew how Dowless conducted his work.

"I think you got one innocent person in this whole thing who had no clue as what was going on and he’s getting the really bad end of the deal here and that’s Mr. Mark Harris," Britt said.

Britt’s mother and Dowless’ ex-wife, Sandra Dowless, testified that she overheard a phone call between Dowless and Harris sometime "before the middle of last September."

She said Dowless told Harris that he was leading in Bladen County because he went to the Bladen Board of Elections and looked at the votes. She said that Harris asked if that was legal and Dowless replied, “anybody can go pick up the same data.”

Britt also said that Dowless told her and half a dozen others to “stick together” and not reveal anything to investigators. Last Thursday, according to Britt, Dowless strongly urged her not to answer questions at the hearing.

Britt said she went to Dowless' house last Thursday evening at his request. Once there, he provided her and her mother with a message for her to repeat at the hearing that read: “I can tell you that haven’t done anything wrong in the election and McCrae Dowless has never told me to do anything wrong and to my knowledge he has never done anything wrong, but I am taking the 5th Amendment because I don’t have an attorney and I feel like you will try to trip me up. I am taking the fifth.”

The board looked into absentee ballot irregularities, the disclosure of early voting results and election security. They found that 595 people failed to return absentee ballots in Bladen County and another 1,493 people failed to do so in Robeson County, a significant number considering the narrow margin separating the two candidates.

“I do feel that I have done wrong. Did I know I was doing wrong? No, ma'am, I didn't. Yeah, I do feel like I’ve done wrong,” Britt said.

When asked if she believed Dowless did anything wrong, Britt responded, “Yes ma’am.”

Near the end of the day, McCrae Dowless himself, who was in attendance at the hearing and had listened to the testimonies, was called as the last witness. Dowless' attorney, Cynthia Singletary, asked whether he was being compelled to testify, which the state board said would have granted him immunity under North Carolina law. The board then met with Dowless in closed session, after which they declined to compel him to testify. His lawyer would not allow him to testify voluntarily, and he was dismissed.

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