By Leigh Ann Caldwell, Jeremia Kimelman and Rich Gardella
RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina State Board of Elections is scheduled to begin its long-awaited hearing Monday into allegations of election irregularities that center around absentee ballots in the still uncertified election between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready in the state’s ninth congressional district.
The election has been embroiled in turmoil since the race ended last November, leaving the district unrepresented since the new Congress was seated on January 3.
Beginning Monday, the board will hear arguments about allegations of ballot fraud that revolve around Harris’s commanding advantage in absentee ballots, particularly in Bladen County, a rural area between Fayetteville and Wilmington in the southeastern part of the state.
Publicly released affidavits have included allegations from North Carolina voters that their absentee ballots were illegally collected and, in some cases, either tampered with or discarded. The state board has been investigating how widespread such incidents might have been.
A new NBC News analysis of raw state election data found that 3,510 absentee ballots requested district-wide were never turned in and no vote was counted for those individuals by any other method. For Bladen County alone, that number was 472.
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The results in Bladen County absentee voting were one basis for the board’s scrutiny. Harris has an unofficial lead over McCready by just 905 total votes.
His campaign racked up a winning margin of 1,557 votes in Bladen County. Sixty-one percent of the absentee ballots there were cast for him even though just 19 percent of those were cast by registered Republicans.
At the center of the controversy are allegations of illegal collection and manipulation of absentee ballots by political operative McCrae Dowless and others working for him. Dowless was hired by the political consulting firm Red Dome Group as an “independent contractor” to help the Harris campaign in Bladen County.
The board is expected to hear from dozens of witnesses called by the state as well as the Harris and McCready campaigns. Those include Dowless, Andy Yates, head of the Red Dome Group, Harris and voters whose ballots may have been tampered with or illegally collected.
At the conclusion of the hearing, which could last more than one day, the board of elections will decide whether to certify the race in favor of Harris, the Republican, or hold a new election.
Harris and the North Carolina Republican Party have maintained their distance from Dowless and are asking the board to certify the election.
McCready is calling for a new election, arguing that evidence that’s already become public shows that Dowless’ "get-out—the-vote” efforts “tainted” a greater number of absentee ballots than the apparent margin of victory in the race.
Representing McCready is long-time attorney for the Democratic Party and the Clintons, Mark Elias, a sign of how important the party views this election.
Under state law, the board has the power to order a new election in a given contest if it determines there were enough widespread "irregularities or improprieties” to “taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.”
The state board has been investigating Dowless and allegations about his absentee ballot operation since at least 2016. Candidates who previously have hired Dowless — both Republican and Democrat — have achieved similar, seemingly disproportionate victories in Bladen County absentee voting.
In a letter to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, the Democratic-led U.S.House of Representatives said it could conduct its own investigation if the election of Harris is certified at the end of the hearing. The House has final say over whether to seat its members.
Leigh Ann Caldwell
Leigh Ann Caldwell is an NBC News correspondent.
Jeremia Kimelman is an interactive graphics developer for NBC News.
Rich Gardella is an investigative producer, reporter and digital journalist with NBC News Investigations, based in Washington, D.C.