North Carolina Republican Mark Harris is embroiled in a post-election “ballot harvesting” controversy not unlike recent midterm election concerns emanating from California, where a state law legalized the collection and return of absentee ballots by third parties.
That practice helped flip seven GOP House seats to Democrats in California, including the entirety of the traditionally conservative Orange County. Now, it is the Republican Party’s turn to grapple with the implications of potential ballot harvesting fraud.
Harris narrowly defeated his Democratic midterm opponent, Dan McCready, for North Carolina’s U.S. House seat in District 9. According to the North Carolina State Board of Elections website, Harris holds a 905-vote lead, although the election has not been certified due to an ongoing investigation.
“You’re looking at several thousand, possibly 2,000 absentee ballot requests from this most recent election. About 40 percent of those, it appears, at this point may not have been returned,” Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman told CNN on Dec. 5.
Many of the unreturned absentee ballots, which may have been destroyed, were from Bladen County, a south-central county near the South Carolina border that broke for Harris by 1,557 votes. Only one other county of the eight comprising District 9, voted decisively for Harris.
A spreadsheet of Bladen County absentee ballot returns obtained by The Epoch Times shows that 916 mail-in ballots were either never returned, returned blank or undeliverable, or were missing signatures. Others were labeled “spoiled,” “wrong voter,” or “incomplete.” There is no way to know by looking at the results if any votes were illegally changed before they were ultimately received by elections officials.
At the center of the ballot irregularities, is a local election contractor named Leslie McCrae Dowless, who was hired by Harris’s political consulting firm, Red Dome Group. Dowless is accused of conducting an illegal operation to collect, fill out, and potentially discard unfavorable ballots from voters.
He allegedly employed harvesting operatives who went door-to-door asking voters to turn in their ballots so they could be delivered to election sites, according to WSOC-TV in Charlotte. Several voters said in interviews that they complied with the ballot collectors’ requests even though their ballots weren’t sealed or completed.
Former Federal Election Commission member Hans von Spakovsky warned of the proliferation of such tactics when describing California’s statewide harvesting law known as AB-1921.
“California’s relatively new law that lifted this prohibition on non-family members delivering ballots is a way of wholesaling absentee ballot fraud and making it very easy to commit,” von Spakovsky told The Epoch Times.
At least 16 states either limit who can collect absentee ballots or ban the practice outright. It is illegal in North Carolina for campaign operatives or political activists to harvest votes.
WSOC reported that State Board of Elections investigators had identified a woman named Lisa Britt as one Dowless’s harvesters. In a sworn affidavit, one Bladen County voter claimed she only voted for two candidates on her ballot and was told by Britt that she would finish the rest.
The voter said she was later contacted by an elections official asking if she was going to return her ballot, indicating that her harvested ballot may have been discarded.
At least three of Dowless’s paid ballot collectors were active in neighboring Robeson County, according to investigators—and it may not have been the first time.
Robeson County Board of Elections chairman Steve Stone attested to receiving an abnormally high number of new voter registration forms and absentee ballot requests over the summer, sometimes receiving “duplicates or triplicates.”
The spike in ballot requests was a red flag for Harris’s Republican primary opponent Robert Pittenger, when he received fewer absentee ballot votes than Harris despite being a three-term incumbent. Pittenger lost the primary election by 828 votes.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Pittenger suspected Dowless was behind the suspicious mail-in returns. “Dowless’s efforts were widely known, and we did share our concerns with several people,” Pittenger said.
District Attorney Freeman confirmed this week that a criminal investigation into “potential voting irregularities” extends as far back as 2016. Harris incidentally ran for the 9th District House seat in 2016, but narrowly lost.
Subpoenas were issued on Dec. 5 for the Harris campaign and the Red Dome Group.
As of Dec. 6, state records reportedly indicate that more than 3,400 midterm absentee ballots across the 9th District were requested by voters but never returned.
If the State Board of Elections concludes that the absentee ballot irregularities affirmatively undermined the election, then it could call for a new election. The Board will hold a hearing by Dec. 21.
Incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on Dec. 4, that the House may not seat Harris if significant questions remain about his election victory when new members are scheduled to report on Jan. 3.
“If there is what appears to be a very substantial question on the integrity of the election, clearly we would oppose Mr. Harris being seated until that is resolved,” Hoyer said.