By Brian Murphy and Jim Morrill

North Carolina election officials Monday opened a hearing into the nation's last unresolved congressional race by outlining "a coordinated, unlawful ... absentee ballot scheme" in the 9th District.

Officials also described efforts to obstruct the investigation into so-called "ballot harvesting," a crime in North Carolina.

The long-awaited hearing, taking place in a makeshift courtroom at the state bar, drew dozens of potential witnesses as well as national media.

When it ends, the five members of the new State Board of Elections will vote to either certify the victory of Republican Mark Harris, call for a new election or deadlock. Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in unofficial returns in the district that runs from Charlotte to Bladen County.

Monday marked the first time that state officials revealed the findings of their nearly three-month investigation into voting irregularities.

"The evidence will show that a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme operated during the 2018 general election in Bladen and Robeson counties," Elections Director Kim Strach told the board.

She said McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County political operative, "instructed workers to falsely sign (ballots) as witnesses and that some ballots were filled in in Dowless' home or office. Dowless, she said, was paid a total of $131,375 by the Harris campaign.

Harris sat stoically through the hearing, telling reporters he would comment later. McCready did not attend.

Lisa Britt of Bladen County, who said McCrae Dowless is her stepfather, described in detail his operation to collect and turn in absentee ballots. They included guidance on filling in incomplete ballots and in some cases forging signatures.

Britt, a convicted felon who had previously spoken to investigators, said Dowless cautioned her on details such as how to place stamps when she mailed in absentee ballots.

"He fussed at me for putting on stamps upside down," she testified. "We didn't want to throw up a red flag."

Britt also testified that after the state investigation had begun, Dowless told her and other workers to say he never directed anyone to collect ballots. She said he called them together and told them, "As long as we all stick together we'll all be fine, because they don't have anything on us."

Then last Thursday, she said, Dowless gave her a statement to read at this week's hearing. It instructed her to say that neither she nor Dowless had done anything wrong and to plead the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.

"I do feel I have done wrong," she said. "Did I know I was? No."

Britt testified that she made false statements during a December interview with WBTV, in which she denied collecting absentee ballots.

The McCready campaign argues that the number of ballots affected by Dowless' operation could be as high as 2,500. They cite the 1,364 absentee ballots cast in Bladen and Robeson and the 1,169 sent to voters that were not returned and who did not vote in another way.

Republicans say unreturned ballots don't necessarily suggest fraud. And they say McCready must show that any fraudulent ballots actually made a difference.

"I will concede they don't have to get to 905, but they would have to get doggone close," Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state GOP, told reporters Sunday night.

There were 684 mail-in absentee ballots cast in Bladen County -- 420 for Harris, 258 for McCready and six for Libertarian Party candidate Jeff Scott. There were 680 mail-in absentee ballots cast in Robeson County _ 403 for McCready, 259 for Harris and 18 for Libertarian Jeff Scott.

A Wake County judge denied an attempt by Harris to force certification through a lawsuit against the Board of Elections.

When the board finally votes this week, some expect a deadlock between its three Democrats and two Republicans. Democrats say that could send the matter to the U.S. House, which has a final say over its membership.

(c)2019 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)