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Hearing to determine future of NC's 9th Congressional District race is underway

The North Carolina State Board of Elections is hearing the case of North Carolina's 9th Congressional district this week—and the case could end with Republican candidate Mark Harris winning the district or an order for a new election.

The seat for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District has remained empty since the 2018 November midterm elections, as a campaign contractor for Harris faced allegations of ballot mismanagement.

Harris defeated incumbent Robert Pittenger in May 2018 in the Republican primary. The initial tallies of the November midterm election suggested Harris scraped out a victory over his opponent—Democrat Dan McCready, Trinity ’05—by just less than 1,000 votes. 

However, the North Carolina State Board of Elections delayed certifying Harris to Congress due to “claims of irregularities and fraudulent activities related to absentee by-mail ballots." One of Harris’ campaign contractors, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., is accused of handling absentee ballots in an illegal manner. 

But Kim Strach, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, did not claim Harris had "direct knowledge of any misconduct."

The Board heard testimony Monday suggesting Dowless' team falsified signatures, concealed documents and hired people to fill in blank absentee ballots, according to the Associated Press. There were also accusations that Dowless orchestrated people picking up voters' absentee ballots, even unfinished ones, which is a crime in North Carolina.

Dowless was also called to testify Monday. His lawyer agreed to let him testify only if the Board provided legal protection against prosecution for events he described, but the Board declined the request, the Associated Press reported.

Andy Yates, the primary strategist for Harris' campaign for Congress, testified Tuesday that Dowless had "told him that he knew collecting absentee ballots is illegal and that he would not do so."

“No red flags. He sounded like someone who knew the law very well,” Yates said, according to reporting by the Charlotte Observer. “He sounded like he had run all the traps.”

The Charlotte Observer reported Harris is likely to be called Wednesday morning to testify. Bob Cordle, chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said the hearing may continue into Thursday. 

Governor Roy Cooper named five new members to the State Board of Elections Jan. 31. Four of the five members on the board need to agree for a new election to be held.