The ballot-rigging investigation that voided a congressional election and forced one of the country's few do-over races simply followed the money, top North Carolina elections officials said Tuesday.
Investigators were following tips that a political operative in rural Bladen County was illegally collecting ballots and didn't target Republican Mark Harris' campaign in the 9th Congressional District, state elections director Kim Westbrook Strach said during a discussion at Davidson College, about 20 miles north of Charlotte.
The operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, had been in the sights of election officials after the 2016 elections, when the board's investigators referred to state and federal prosecutors the findings that he may have violated laws banning the handling of ballots. Dowless wasn't charged until last month.
So in October, state elections officials sent letters to Bladen County voters who requested an absentee ballot warning that it was illegal for anyone to come to their homes and collect mail-in ballots, Strach said.
"We didn't know that he (Dowless) was working for the Mark Harris campaign at all. We just had gotten complaints that a couple of people had got their ballots picked up," Strach said.
There was no money trail linking Dowless and Harris because the candidate had contracted with political consulting company Red Dome Group to handle many campaign logistics, including paying Dowless, state elections board attorney Josh Lawson said. That changed just before the state elections board decided on Nov. 27 to delay certifying Harris as the winner, he said, because elections officials noticed a Dowless worker posted on Facebook that she was being paid through Red Dome.
"That was our link as of the 27th of November when we pushed pause on the election," Lawson said. "This was not trying to get a particular person. This was trying to make sure that this was election, which was very important, had reliable results. And we already had cause to believe that that may not the case."
The bipartisan state elections board last month unanimously declared the election tainted and ordered another.
Harris isn't running again. Ten others are seeking the Republican nomination in May's primary. Democrat Dan McCready is running again for the congressional seat he thought he narrowly lost last fall. He faces no primary opponent.
Dowless was charged last month by a state prosecutor for similar ballot activities in 2016 and for his work for Harris in the 2018 primary.
Though state elections officials don't have the authority to prosecute election crimes, North Carolina became one of the first in the country in 2013 to have state funding for an investigations staff, Lawson said. That team has been working on election cases ever since, but none as big as last year's Harris-McCready race, which Harris seemed in November to have won by 905 votes out of almost 278,000 cast, he said.
"This surfaced because you happened to have a close race that could have been affected by absentee votes," Lawson said.