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Judge considering fate of undecided race in North Carolina

North Caroline house seat still contested

RALEIGH, N.C. — A North Carolina judge was scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday into declaring the Republican in the country's last undecided congressional race the winner despite an investigation into whether his lead was boosted by illegal vote-collection tactics.

A trial judge in the state capital was expected to hear lawyers for candidate Mark Harris argue that the now-disbanded elections board was supposed to have declared him the winner in November, delayed acting to sort out ballot-fraud allegations, and now can't certify him as the winner. Because GOP reshuffling of the old elections board's membership had been declared unconstitutional, its investigation into alleged ballot fraud by an operative hired by the Republican's campaign was invalid, Harris' attorneys claimed.

The elections board was dissolved Dec. 28 by state judges who in October declared its makeup unconstitutional but had allowed investigations to continue. A revamped board comes into existence starting Jan. 31.

Harris narrowly led Democrat Dan McCready in the 9th District race before the investigation started.

Lawyers for McCready and the state elections board want the lawsuit dismissed. They say a completed investigation is needed into allegations that mail-in ballots could have been altered or discarded by a Harris subcontractor.

Democrats who this month took control of the U.S. House said they wouldn't seat Harris without an investigation into the allegations, and suggested they may examine the dispute no matter what the state elections board does.

State attorneys argued the judge shouldn't side with Harris because he's unlikely to be seated in Congress until after the restored elections board examines collected evidence at a planned hearing and acts.

The questions surround a political operative in rural Bladen County, Leslie McCrae Dowless, who worked for Harris' campaign at the candidate's insistence. Dowless has declined interviews. A statement by his attorney said he is innocent of any wrongdoing.

More than a dozen witnesses signed sworn affidavits alleging that Dowless or people working for him collected incomplete and unsealed ballots from voters. It's illegal for anyone other than a close relative or guardian to take a person's ballot.

Harris said he didn't learn until late last month that the state elections board investigated Dowless and others potentially involved in ballot fraud in 2016.

"I would later learn that obviously there had been things that should have been looked into, but everything that had been looked into had come out just perfectly fine," Harris said in one of several television interviews he conducted earlier this month. Neither Harris nor McCready have responded to interview requests from The Associated Press.

The state elections board, which has no power to prosecute election cases, forwarded its evidence to the federal prosecutor's office in Raleigh. The U.S. Attorney since September 2017 has been President Trump's nominee, Robert Higdon.

Harris suggested Democrats may have known about illegal ballot-harvesting activities in Bladen County but didn't complain until after November's election so that it would booby-trap the Republican's victory.

"Could it be that they weren't prosecuted because this was a situation we would just lay in wait, and then the time would come that if $11 million and Dan McCready couldn't beat Mark Harris, maybe this would be an insurance card that would be played for a do-over? I don't know," Harris said.

McCready, an Iraq War veteran and head of a solar-energy investment firm, said earlier this week that the former Baptist pastor of a Charlotte megachurch should be prosecuted if he participated in election misconduct.

"Either he knew what was going on during his constant conversations with McCrae Dowless about his absentee ballot program, having been warned about the fraud already, and he should be in jail. Or he turned a blind eye to fraud, he built a culture of corruption, that represents the worst in our politics," McCready told WBTV.