RALEIGH, N.C. — State election officials in North Carolina said Monday that a political operative for Republican Mark Harris orchestrated a “coordinated, unlawful, and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme” in the 9th Congressional District last year, hiding evidence of the operation as it unfolded and obstructing the state’s investigation after the election.

Those explosive charges opened an evidentiary hearing Monday in Raleigh, where the North Carolina elections board began listening to witness testimony to decide whether enough ballots were tampered with to taint the outcome of the 9th District race.

The state board’s executive director, Kim Strach, told the five-member board that Leslie McCrae Dowless, a longtime political operative from Bladen County, paid workers to collect absentee ballots from voters, a felony in North Carolina. Dowless and his employees in some cases forged voter and witness signatures and filled out blank or incomplete ballots, Strach said. They operated in Bladen and Robeson counties, she said – submitting as many as 1,249 ballot request forms in the general election. It’s unclear exactly how many actual ballots Dowless and his associates turned in.

Strach did not offer evidence that Harris knew of the alleged scheme. Harris personally directed Dowless’ hiring despite being warned about his tactics, but he has said repeatedly that he had no knowledge of Dowless’ allegedly illegal operations.

The election has been in limbo since November, when the state elections board declined to certify Harris’s 905-vote lead, instead launching an investigation into the allegations against Dowless. After it hears the evidence from that investigation this week, the board will decide whether to certify the results or call for a new election.

The investigators painted a portrait Monday of a widespread scheme to illegally handle absentee ballots. They did not offer evidence that enough ballots were tainted to change the narrow outcome of the race – a fact that Republicans seized on as evidence that Harris remains the rightful winner in the last undecided congressional race in the nation.

“While it is disappointing that folks may have violated the law, at this point we are dealing with a limited number of ballots that are nowhere close to bringing the election result into question,” Dallas Woodhouse, head of the state Republican Party, told reporters Monday.

That same evidence prompted Democrats to argue that the overall result is tainted, which can also prompt a revote under state law.

Dowless and his employees went to some lengths to avoid “raising red flags” with election officials, Strach’s first witness, Lisa Britt, told the board Monday. They mailed no more than nine or 10 ballots at a time, and they made sure to mail them from the nearest post offices to the voters’ homes, even though many of the ballots were signed and witnessed en masse at Dowless’ office. They took pains to use the same ink for voter and witness signatures, and to make sure stamps were affixed to the ballot envelopes in a way that didn’t reveal a pattern, Britt said.

“I had placed a stamp upside down” on one of the ballot envelopes, Britt testified. “Mr. Dowless fussed at me about that. I guess one or two wouldn’t have mattered, but if you’ve got 10 or 15 coming in that way, they’re going to say, ‘Now hey, wait a minute.’ “

Britt never discarded a ballot, she said, nor did she see Dowless do so.

Another witness, Sandra Dowless, who is Dowless’ ex-wife and Britt’s mother, said she heard Dowless on the phone before the election, telling Harris he was ahead among absentee voters. When Harris asked Dowless how he knew that, Dowless said he’d looked at data at the county elections board.

The board published evidence in December that the county election staff improperly released early voting results. Strach said Monday that no evidence has emerged that anyone inside the local board released those results to Dowless.

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