North Carolina board to hear evidence on election fraud claim
FILE PHOTO: Mark Harris, Republican candidate from North Carolina's 9th Congressional district speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina U.S., October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

North Carolina election officials on Monday will begin hearing evidence on allegations that absentee ballots unlawfully collected by a Republican operative may have tipped a tight November U.S. congressional election in favor of a Republican candidate.

The U.S. House of Representatives seat has remained vacant since state officials refused to certify the apparent victory by Republican Mark Harris over Democratic rival Dan McCready after voters in the state’s 9th congressional district said the Harris campaign team had collected their incomplete absentee ballots.

State officials have named Republican political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless as a person of interest in their election fraud probe after voters in Bladen County said people working with Dowless came to their homes and collected ballots, which would violate state law.

Each side will have a chance to present evidence to the five-member State Board of Elections in hearings that could run through Wednesday. Under state law, the board could order a new election if it finds sufficient evidence that voter fraud affected the outcome of the election. If it does not, it could certify Harris as the district’s congressional representative.

If the Democrats pick up the seat, they would widen their 235-197 majority in the House after taking control of the chamber from President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans in the Nov. 6 election.

While Trump has repeatedly and without evidence said that large numbers of illegal immigrants have cast ballots in U.S. elections to the benefit of Democrats, the North Carolina dispute involves alleged election fraud by the Republicans.

Harris declared victory after early vote tallies showed him with a 905-vote edge out of 282,717 ballots cast. McCready initially conceded, then withdrew his concession after the reports about absentee ballots appeared.

In January, a state judge declined a Harris request to overturn the board’s decision not to confirm that he had won. The judge said it would be a “dramatic intervention” to do so before the state concluded its investigation.

“We hope to have Dr. Harris certified so he can take his seat in the congressional district,” said David Freedman, a lawyer representing Harris.

Representatives for McCready did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Dowless’ lawyer, Cynthia Adams Singletary, has denied that her client violated state or federal campaign laws. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham