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By Leigh Ann Caldwell
ELIZABETHTOWN, N.C. — A white woman and her tangle of friends and relatives have become central to the story of alleged election fraud of absentee ballots here in the still-unresolved ninth district congressional race.
The woman, who has been identified by voters as Lisa Britt, knocked on doors of black voters in this rural county of just 33,500 residents, asking for their absentee ballots, offering to mail, and sometimes fill them out.
One voter, 87-year old Emma Shipman, told NBC News that she refused to give her the ballot, even though Britt visited her twice. Another, 27-year old Datesha Montgomery, did give her the ballot, thinking that she was just helping people out.
Britt signed at least three dozen absentee ballot applications in the district, according to documents obtained by NBC News through an attorney working with the Democrats to collect evidence for the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement’s ongoing investigation into fraudulent activity regarding mail-in absentee ballots in several counties
Britt listed her home at the same address of her mother, Sandra Dowless, in public housing complex in Bladensboro, N.C. Sandra Dowless also signed tens of absentee ballot applications, according to the same documents obtained by NBC News.
Another woman, Jessica Dowless, collected and signed 175 absentee ballot applications, according to documents released by the board of elections.
And that leads to McCrae Dowless, the former husband of Sandra Dowless. He turned in at least 590 absentee ballot applications, according to the board’s documents. Under North Carolina law, only the voter, a relative or a guardian can turn in an absentee ballot.
The board of elections on Friday confirmed that McCrea Dowles is “a person of interest in connection with an alleged absentee ballot operation in the congressional district.”
McCrae Dowles was contracted to do campaign work for the Red Dome consulting firm that was employed by Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris.
At least 86 returned absentee ballots were signed by one of the half dozen people with either the last name Dowless or by someone who has been publicly identified as an associate of Dowless, according to documents released by the board of elections.
NBC News has attempted to contact Sandra, Jessica and McCrae Dowless, Lisa Britt and a handful of others whose signatures appear on absentee ballot applications or the ballots themselves. But phone calls and knocks on their doors went unanswered.
The investigation has thrown the results of the House race between Harris and Democrat Dan McCready.
The board of elections has declined to certify the results of the congressional race because after two closed-door hearings it found there was enough fraudulent activity to continue the investigation. The board will hold an evidentiary hearing on its findings on or before December 21.
McCready withdrew his concession of the contest on Thursday.
Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, said he’d be supportive of a new election “if (the board of elections) can show a substantial likelihood it could have changed the race.”
North Carolina law determines that a new election is necessary if evidence is found that the outcome would be different.
McCrae Dowless has become the central character of the investigation, perhaps implementing a scheme so large that it could have impacted the outcome of the race as Harris has an unofficial lead of 905 votes over McCready in the race.
Harris racked up a winning margin of 1,557 voters in Bladen County where 61 percent of the absentee ballots were cast for him even though just 19 percent of those ballots were cast by registered Republicans.
The state board of election investigation is broader than Bladen County, encompassing Robeson, Wake and additional counties where such activity could take place.
The board is looking into 14,056 absentee ballots requested for voters across the congressional district, according to Josh Lawson, the board’s general counsel. Of those, 10,651 were returned; 3,405 were not. The board has concerns about whether irregularities and fraudulent activities could have impacted ballots in both categories – ballots illegally completed or tampered with and counted, or ballots illegally discarded.
Election fraud allegations in Bladen County have been impacting the state for at least two years, which is when the state board asked law enforcement to begin investigating.
The fraud comes amid an ongoing political fight in North Carolina where vote fraud has become a wedge issue for voters and political parties. In 2013, the Republican legislature and the former Republican governor implemented a strict voter ID law to prevent voter fraud. After a federal court determined that the law was unconstitutional, a pared down version of the voter ID requirement was put to the voters, who approved it in the last election.
Rich Gardella and Ben Kamisar contributed from Washington.
Rich Gardella and Ben Kamisar contributed.