By Marti Maguire
RALEIGH, N.C. (Reuters) - An investigation of a disputed 2018 congressional contest in North Carolina has uncovered a "coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme," the state's elections board executive director said on Monday.
Investigators found evidence that a political operative working for Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris in last year's election unlawfully collected absentee ballots from voters in the state's 9th congressional district, director Kim Strach said at the start of a hearing that could lead to a new election.
The scheme affected 1,019 ballot requests in Bladen and Robeson counties during the 2018 election, Strach said. Harris initially appeared to win by mere hundreds of votes.
The U.S. House of Representatives seat has remained vacant since state officials refused to certify the apparent victory by Harris over Democratic rival Dan McCready, after voters in the state's 9th congressional district said the Harris campaign team had collected their incomplete absentee ballots.
Harris declared victory after early vote tallies showed him with a 905-vote edge out of 282,717 ballots cast. McCready withdrew his initial concession after reports about absentee ballots surfaced.
Republican political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless conducted an absentee ballot operation from April 2017 up to the 2018 elections while working for Red Dome Consulting, a firm hired by the Harris campaign, Strach said.
She said Dowless paid workers $150 for every 50 absentee ballot requests they collected and another $125 for every 50 ballots collected.
State officials have named Dowless as a person of interest in their election fraud probe after voters in Bladen County said people working with Dowless came to their homes and collected ballots, which would violate state law.
Dowless and Harris both attended Monday's hearing in Raleigh. Dowless' lawyer, Cynthia Adams Singletary, has denied her client violated state or federal campaign laws, and Harris has said he was unaware of any wrongdoing.
Under state law, the five-member elections board could order a new election if it finds sufficient evidence that fraud affected the outcome of the election. If it does not, it could certify Harris as the district's congressional representative.
"We hope to have Dr. Harris certified so he can take his seat in the congressional district," said David Freedman, a lawyer representing Harris.
Representatives for McCready did not respond to a request for comment.
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 fellow Republicans in the Nov. 6 election.
While Trump has repeatedly and without evidence said that large numbers of illegal immigrants have cast ballots in U.S. elections to the benefit of Democrats, the North Carolina dispute involves alleged election fraud by the Republicans.
(Reporting by Marti Maguire; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Tom Brown)
This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.
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Updated Date: Feb 19, 2019 00:08:08 IST