As any seasoned court watcher will tell you, it’s best not to prematurely predict a trial’s outcome, no matter how persuasive the early evidence is. But this week’s State Board of Elections hearing into last year’s 9th District election is not a trial. It’s a proceeding to determine if Republican Mark Harris’ victory over Democrat Dan McCready last November is tainted. The hearing continues today and, given the pace of proceedings Monday and Tuesday, could take most of the week. But for its intended purposes, it’s already over.
It was over when state officials put up a slide early Monday declaring that more than 1,000 absentee ballot forms were submitted in Bladen County and Robeson County by political operative McCrae Dowless and his workers. That’s more than the 905-vote margin of victory in the 2018 race.
It was over when one of those workers, Lisa Britt, detailed the various ways Dowless and his crew committed election fraud and tried to avoid detection.
It was over when Dowless refused to offer his own testimony without a promise of immunity.
Even Harris attorney Alexander Dale tacitly acknowledged Monday that fraud occurred, while suggesting his client knew nothing about it. But for the purposes of this hearing, it doesn’t matter what Harris knew about McCrae Dowless. The proceedings aren’t about whether Harris knowingly participated in or paid for election fraud (although 9th District voters surely would appreciate some clarity on that). The hearing is about determining whether election fraud occurred and, importantly, if there’s the possibility that it occurred at a level that could influence the outcome of the election. If that possibility exists, then a statuatory threshold is triggered that allows the board of elections to intervene and “take any other action necessary to assure than an election is determined without taint or fraud or corruption and without irregularities that may have changed the result of an election.”
That threshold of taint was triggered months ago, as details of the Dowless operation were revealed in media reports. Monday’s testimony was merely affirmation that the board should call for a new NC-09 election, and that the U.S. House should order a new primary given indications that Dowless and his workers helped Harris defeat Republican incumbent Robert Pittenger in the 2018 GOP primary.
The only pertinent question remaining for this week is whether politics will taint this hearing. During one break Monday, NC GOP executive director Dallas Woodhouse told reporters that he hadn’t heard anything that persuaded him the election had been altered by Dowless. Woodhouse surely hopes Republicans on the elections board feel the same.
The board, however, doesn’t need proof that at least 905 votes were tampered with, or that Harris knew it was happening. It needs only to ask whether there are too many questions about election fraud in the 9th District to be sure that the 2018 outcome is valid.
There are. The hearing continues today, but it’s over. Ninth District voters deserve the confidence of an election free from fraud.