Updated at 1:31 p.m. ET
Three months after the midterm elections, North Carolina officials are publicly laying out their evidence for the first time that the outcome in the state's 9th Congressional District may have been tainted by election fraud.
"The evidence will show that a coordinated, unlawful, and substantially-resourced absentee ballot scheme operated during the 2018 general election," said North Carolina State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach, in her opening statement Monday at the beginning of what could be a multi-day hearing to consider evidence that investigators have been gathering since late last year.
Monday's hearing kicked off with a key witness detailing how the alleged scheme worked and suggesting that the operative who was behind the absentee ballot operation sought to obstruct the state investigation into it.
In the unofficial tally for the 9th District race, Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. But the election has been tainted by allegations that an operative hired by Harris collected and potentially manipulated some vote-by-mail ballots.
Operative accused of trying to 'obstruct' investigation
Shortly after the 2018 midterms, the State Board of Elections voted on bipartisan lines to delay certifying the race and open an investigation. McCrae Dowless was named a person of interest by the board shortly thereafter.
Dowless has repeatedly declined to comment to NPR, and has not spoken publicly since the investigation began. His attorney, Cynthia Adams Singletary, released a statement in December saying Dowless did not break any laws and that any investigation would prove that.
A number of voters have subsequently come forward to say that Dowless or people paid by Dowless picked up their vote-by-mail ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina, accusations that were again aired at Monday's hearing.
Strach said investigators spoke with more than 140 voters and 30 witnesses as part of the state's investigation.
She said that not only did Dowless pay people to pick up ballots, $125 per 50 ballots collected, but that actions were taken meant to "obstruct the investigation and testimony provided at this hearing."
The first witness called by the State Board was Lisa Britt, who said she was paid by Dowless to register people to vote and to collect ballots.
Britt described how Dowless gave her specific instructions for how to return ballots so as to not "raise red flags" with the State Board of Elections: using post offices close to the voters, and never mailing more than nine or ten ballot envelopes at a time.
She said she had "no idea" how many ballots she picked up in total.
Britt also described how Dowless tried to interfere with the investigation, saying that he told her and others "as long as we all stick together, we'll all be fine because they don't have anything on us."
In a particularly dramatic moment, Britt described how Dowless called her over to his house last week and handed her a letter he wanted her to read at Monday's hearing.
"I can tell you that I 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," the note read. "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."
Britt finished by saying she felt that she had, in fact, done things wrong, but not knowingly. Then she gave an emotional defense of Harris.
"I think you've got one innocent person in this whole thing, who had no clue what was going on, and he's the one getting a real bad deal here and that's Mr. Mark Harris." Britt said.
Harris could be seen shaking his head after Britt's testimony.
Election results in Bladen County, where Dowless is based, also indicated something was amiss after results were tabulated.
Harris won 61 percent of the vote-by-mail ballots in Bladen, despite only 19 percent of the voters who voted by mail being registered Republican. For Harris to have ended up with that 61 percent, he would have had to win every single Republican and unaffiliated voter and some registered Democrats as well, leading to questions about whether ballots were manipulated or tossed out.
Republicans have pointed to Harris' 905 vote margin, saying that there's no evidence Dowless' operation involved enough ballots to overturn that margin. But state investigators disputed that notion early on, saying Dowless or people who worked for Dowless submitted at least 1,019 absentee ballot requests in the Ninth District.
Harris has said he was in frequent contact with Dowless throughout his campaign, even saying that he had a "pastorly" relationship to him, but he says he knew of no illegal activity going on. Harris told the Associated Press last week that he was unaware of Dowless' criminal record, which included convictions for insurance fraud and perjury, and of Dowless' previous history of unsavory election tactics.
The State Board of Elections investigated potential election fraud in Bladen County in 2016, and Dowless testified at a public hearing, which was featured in an episode of the nationally-syndicated radio show and podcast This American Life.
The board forwarded its investigative findings to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina in 2017.
"Our findings to date suggest that individuals and potentially groups of individuals engaged in efforts to manipulate election results through the absentee ballot process," wrote State Board of Elections executive director Kim Strach in January 2017. "The evidence we have obtained suggest that these efforts may have taken place in the past and if not addressed will likely continue for future elections."
Potential next steps
The State Board of Elections, which consists of three Democrats and two Republicans, is expected to vote at the end of the hearing on how to proceed.
To certify Harris would require three votes, meaning at least one Democrat would have to vote in favor. And to hold a new election would require four votes, meaning at least one Republican would have to vote in favor.
If the board is deadlocked after the hearing, Harris would be certified according to North Carolina law. But Democrats who now hold the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives have indicated they would not seat Harris if questions remain about the election's fairness,. In that case, the House could deem the seat vacant, which would then give Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, the authority to call a new election.
In the case of a whole new race, constituents in the 9th District will probably go much of 2019 without representation in Congress. Experts say between the length of filing periods and new primaries, a new House member probably wouldn't be seated until late summer or fall.