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A four-day hearing on voting irregularities cast doubt not only on the votes cast in Bladen County, but also the county’s election security and processes.
The North Carolina elections board voted unanimously Thursday to trash the results of the November election between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready. The board ordered a new election in the 9th Congressional District as well as in two local races in Bladen County.
The board cited absentee-ballot fraud by campaign workers — what its staff described as "a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme." But the board also heard from Bladen elections board workers who testified that they tabulated the early-voting results prior to Election Day – a violation of the law. A machine printed the results on a "tape," which resembled a long receipt when revealed in the courtroom Tuesday.
That afternoon, N.C. Democratic Party chairman Wayne Goodwin offered an explanation of the situation when he appeared on CNN.
"Early vote totals were released illegally before the election was over," Goodwin said. Goodwin didn’t elaborate, which could leave viewers wondering how widely the results were shared and if they got back to Harris.
Additionally, the NC Democratic Party went on to imply that the results were "shared" or "leaked" to political operatives or even Harris.
On Feb. 18, an NCDP email headline said, "Key witness confirms early vote totals shared with Mark Harris." In another NCDP email sent later that day, the party said results "might have been leaked" before saying "a key witness went a step further, detailing how the totals were leaked ahead of time. "
Early vote totals were printed too early. But were they "released" or "leaked," or even "shared with Mark Harris?"
The state elections board called for a new election and adjourned its hearing without presenting all of its evidence. However, according to slides presented by the board on Monday, investigators found no hard evidence that early voting results were shown to political operatives.
"Early voting personnel working at the site had access to those results," an election board slide says, referring to early voting ballot totals. "We were unable to confirm whether any early voting personnel divulged those results to anyone outside of the early voting site."
Here’s what investigators did discover.
Several Bladen County poll workers testified during the hearing on Tuesday.
Coy Mitchell Edwards, a poll worker who said he signed the early voting tape, testified that he saw some of the results on the Saturday before the election. The congressional results printed near the top of the tape and the results of the sheriff’s race were printed in the middle, Edwards said.
Agnes Willis, another poll worker at the Bladen County early voting site, testified that she noticed the tape on a table when she heard another poll worker react to it. Willis said Tojie King, a Democratic poll worker, was looking at the results of the sheriff’s race.
With the exception of chief judge Michele Maultsby, other poll workers also looked at the early voting results, Willis said in the hearing and in an affidavit.
Maultsby, for her part, said she took the tape and locked it in a "treasure chest" with other materials. She said she then gave the chest to Cynthia Shaw, who at the time was the Bladen County elections director.
Maultsby said Shaw is the one who suggested the results were leaked. She testified that Shaw pulled her into an office with an urgent question, the Charlotte Observer reported.
"When I went back to the office to turn in all my paperwork, we turned in the tape and the memory card," Maultsby said. "She questioned me about it. She fired me up about it...She wanted to know who told something about it. I said not on my watch, uh-uh."
The Charlotte Observer reported: "Maultsby said Shaw didn’t tell her what race results had allegedly leaked, or to whom."
Shaw's relationship with Dowless has come under the spotlight.
During a hearing over absentee-ballot irregularities in 2016, Dowless told the board about a system he had with Shaw. Dowless said Shaw knew his get-out-the-vote workers put their initials on the corner of absentee ballot request forms, which the Washington Post reported in December.
"[S]o if there is a problem you know who to contact," Dowless said, according to a transcript from the 2016 hearing.
Shaw also contacted Dowless when she learned of absentee ballot requests that had been forged, according to Jens Lutz, former vice-chair of the Bladen elections board. Lutz filed an affidavitwith the NC elections board in December.
Shaw didn’t testify during the hearing. But Dowless’s ex-wife, Sandra Dowless, testified on Monday that she believed he did indeed access early voting results.
Sandra said she overheard Dowless tell Harris that he had more absentee votes than McCready. The conversation was on speakerphone, she said. Dowless told Harris that he was "way in the lead," she testified.
Sandra testified that Dowless, asked by Harris how he learned that information, said he went to the local board of elections and saw who had voted.
On Thursday, the NC elections board revealed that it had obtained a text message from Harris’ wife, Beth, to his son, John. The text was sent in May 6, 2018 (two days before the primary) and appears to relay early voting result totals from Dowless.
Dowless relayed that Harris received 988 early votes and absentee votes in Bladen County, according to the text. In reality, Harris received 889.
The mistake was likely a typing error, said Howard, the NC Democratic Party spokesman. "Which suggests that Dowless did have access to the actual numbers in the primary (and likely the general as well)," Howard said.
The improper early tally of results, as well as a witness’ description of overheard comments, indicate that the Democrats’ claims have some validity. But their claims could also lead people to believe the evidence is more definitive than it really is.
Rather than put their claims on the Truth-O-Meter, PolitiFact believes it’s more appropriate to provide this context and highlight the words of the state elections board staff: that investigators were "unable to confirm whether any early voting personnel divulged those results to anyone outside of the early voting site."
This story was produced by the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, a partnership of McClatchy Carolinas, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and PolitiFact. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists provide support for the project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide. To offer ideas for fact checks, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A CNN appearance on by Wayne Goodwin, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, on Feb. 19, 2019. The CNN Newsroom tweeted a clip.
Email newsletters sent by the NC Democratic Party, "NC-09 NEWS: Key witness confirms early vote totals shared with Mark Harris," sent on Feb. 18, 2019; and "Key takeaways from NC-09 Day 2: Direct tie from Mark Harris to his campaign's ‘coordinated, unlawful absentee ballot scheme,’" sent on Feb. 19, 2019.
Email correspondence with Robert Howard, spokesman for the NC Democratic Party.
Story by WECT, "NC9 hearing day 2: Witness indicates early vote totals leaked, Red Dome leader testifies," posted Feb. 19, 2019.
Story by WRAL, "Bladen elections director leaves job," posted Dec. 3, 2019.
Transcript of the North Carolina Board of Elections hearing on Dec. 3, 2016.
Stories by The Washington Post, "N.C. election officials: Harris operative collected and falsified ballots, then tried to obstruct state investigation," posted Feb. 18, 2019; and "N.C. congressional candidate sought out aide, despite warnings over tactics," published Dec. 13, 2018.
Stories by The News & Observer, "Republican Mark Harris to be called next to testify in 9th district election hearing," updated Feb. 19, 2019; "Operative at center of NC election fraud hearing won’t testify," posted Feb. 18, 2019; "Bladen County election office gave special access to Dowless, former board member says," posted Dec. 24, 2018; "Bladen counted early votes too soon in 2018. Witness alleges numbers were leaked," posted Dec. 10, 2018; "Understanding the election fraud allegations in North Carolina’s 9th district," posted Dec. 4, 2019.