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By Leigh Ann Caldwell and Rich Gardella

ELIZABETHTOWN, N.C. — Pressure is increasing on North Carolina to find a resolution to the unresolved congressional race in the state’s 9th District as allegations of election irregularities and fraudulent activities continue to surface.

State investigators are combing through election board records in several counties to discover whether there was an organized effort to unlawfully collect the absentee ballots of thousands of voters and then not turn those ballots over to election authorities.

They are especially interested in Bladen County, a rural, low-income area in the southeastern part of the state where investigators are looking at several individuals who turned in requests for absentee ballots on behalf of hundreds of voters.

The results of the investigation could put in jeopardy Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris’ unofficial lead of 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready.

The Charlotte Observer’s editorial board Wednesday called for the state to hold a new election, while Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, a top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said the committee should investigate.

North Carolina GOP executive director Dallas Woodhouse said Thursday that the party supports the state investigation. “If they can show with certainty that the outcome could not have been changed, they need to certify Mr. Harris and continue to support all state and federal criminal investigations,” he said.

“If they can show a substantial likelihood it could have changed the race, then we fully would support a new election” Woodhouse added.

Meanwhile, some voters in the district are now speaking out, with personal accounts about how their absentee ballots were unlawfully collected.

Datesha Montgomery told NBC News that a blonde woman came to her door on Oct. 12 and asked if she could collect her absentee ballot.

“I told her, ‘Sure.’ I had broke the seal in front of her to show it was never opened,” Montgomery said. “I’m telling her who I was voting for, and she was like — she didn’t wanna hear it, so I just like, didn’t say nothing else. I just filled out two blocks, and I gave it to her.”

Montgomery, 27, lives with her 4-year old daughter in a neatly manicured public housing complex named Twisted Hickory just outside of Elizabethtown in Bladen County. She said she gave her unsealed absentee ballot to the woman, believing her to be an election official who would turn the ballot in.

But she said two investigators later showed up at her house and told her it had never been submitted.

So she went to a polling place on Election Day to cast her vote in person.

Emma Shipman, 87, of Tar Heel, had a similar story. A blonde woman showed up at her door to encourage her to turn in her absentee ballot, she told NBC News. But Shipman said she wouldn’t give it to the woman, even after the woman said she would provide a stamp to mail the ballot for her.

“I have plenty of stamps,” Shipman said she responded.

Under North Carolina law, only the voter, a relative or a postal delivery person (U.S.P.S., UPS, or Fed Ex) can deliver an absentee ballot.

Both Shipman and Montgomery said they had signed affidavits sent to the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement to be used as evidence in the board’s ongoing investigation into fraudulent activity regarding mail-in absentee ballots in several counties, particularly Bladen, which has a population of 33,500.

Emma Shipman, 87, of Tar Heel, N.C., said a woman attempted to illegally collect her absentee ballot.Leigh Ann Caldwell / NBC News

The board has not certified the election results in the race, and is now conducting an investigation.

Last Friday, the board voted 7-2 in favor of “holding a public evidentiary hearing into claims of irregularities and fraudulent activities related to absentee by-mail voting and potentially other matters in the 9th Congressional District contest.”

In a press release, the board stated that “in light of claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities related to absentee by-mail ballots and potentially other matters,” it will hold an “evidentiary hearing” on or before Dec. 21. The hearing will examine whether irregularities or fraudulent activities affected a “sufficient number of votes” to change or taint the results or outcome of the election, or cast doubt on its fairness.

The board is looking into 14,056 absentee ballots requested for voters across the 9th District, according to Josh Lawson, the board’s general counsel. Of these, 10,651 were returned, and 3,405 were not. The board has concerns about whether irregularities and fraudulent activities could have affected ballots in both categories — ballots illegally completed or tampered with and counted, or ballots illegally discarded.

Harris racked up a winning margin of 1,557 votes in Bladen County, and 61 percent of the absentee ballots were cast for him even though just 19 percent of those ballots were cast by registered Republicans.

According to state law, the State Board may order a new election if one of the following conditions are met: There were enough ineligible voters to change the results of the election and it’s not possible to determine how they voted; enough eligible voters to change the results were not allowed to vote; other irregularities affected enough votes to change the outcome or “irregularities or improprieties” were widespread enough to “taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.”

Both Shipman and Montgomery, who say they don’t know each other, identified the woman who came to collect their ballots as Lisa Britt.

Britt has been connected in press reports to McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County water and soil commissioner.

According to the board, allegations about Dowless’ operations and activities involving absentee ballots are now a focus of its investigation. According to state records, Dowless has a criminal background that includes a fraudulent insurance claim.

Dowless was hired by the Harris campaign as well as other local campaigns, according to The Washington Post, to help in Bladen County.

In an election-night speech at his headquarters, Harris thanked two counties — Bladen and Union — for putting him over the top.

On Wednesday, the board announced that its newly appointed chairman, Joshua Malcolm, had written a letter directing staff to review and post documents relating to the investigation in an “online portal” for the public to see.

One of the publicly released documents, an “office record” maintained by the Bladen County Board of Elections, shows that Dowless himself turned in 590 absentee ballot request forms between late August and early October.

The same document showed that a Jessica Dowless, who was described by BuzzFeed News as a distant relative of Dowless, turned in 185, a total of 775 absentee ballot request forms between the two.

Additional documents obtained by NBC News from an attorney working with Democrats to find information to pass on to state investigators indicate that Jessica Dowless and a half dozen others were signed witnesses to more than at least 150 absentee ballot applications.

Other signatories to the applications include Sandra Dowless, Britt’s mother. Cheryl Kinlaw and Ginger Eason also signed dozens of applications as witnesses.

NBC News has tried to reach every signatory on the absentee ballot applications it received. Sandra Dowless said she “had nothing to say” and attempts to reach Jessica Dowless, McCrae Dowless, Lisa Britt and half a dozen others who signed absentee ballot applications obtained by NBC News via phone calls and knocking on their doors were unsuccessful.

Kinlaw said she was paid $100 to collect absentee ballots. “I feel bad now that I know that it wasn’t legal, but I didn’t know at the time,” she told WSOC in Charlotte.

Election fraud allegations in Bladen County have been around for at least two years, which is when the state board asked law enforcement to begin investigating.

Another document released Wednesday by the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement shows that it had begun acting on concerns about absentee ballots before Election Day. The document was a letter mailed to every voter requesting an absentee-by-mail ballot in Bladen County during the 2018 general election, warning that “only you or your near relative or legal guardian can mail or deliver your ballot to the elections office,” and that “only you can vote your ballot.” It was sent between Oct. 29 and Nov. 2.

This all comes amid an ongoing political fight in North Carolina, where election fraud has become a wedge issue for voters and political parties. In 2013, the Republican legislature and the Republican governor at the time implemented a strict voter ID law to prevent voter fraud. After a federal court determined that the law was unconstitutional, a pared-down version was put to voters, who approved it in the last election.

The minority leader in the U.S. Senate, Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., implored Republicans to be concerned about the allegations in North Carolina in a tweet Thursday night, referring to Thomas Farr, the Raleigh-based attorney that all Democrats and two Republicans blocked from a district court judicial nomination because of his work defending the strict voter ID law.

The Democratic Party has dispatched additional lawyers and staff on the ground to collect sworn affidavits of unlawful activity regarding their absentee ballots.

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement is made up of nine members: four Democrats, four Republicans and one independent. Two of its Republican members voted in favor of the hearing — John Malachi Lewis, who has served as a deputy counsel for the North Carolina Republican Party, and Stacy Eggers IV. Two voted against — Ken Raymond, the board’s secretary, and John Randolph “Jay” Hemphill.

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Brexit LIVE: 'Stop Boris!' Remainers draw up plot to block no deal Brexit



SEVEN Tory Ministers including former Home Secretary Amber Rudd are ready to block Boris Johnson’s bid to take the UK out of the EU without a Brexit divorce deal if he becomes Conservative Party leader, in a move which could ignite civil war in the Conservative Party.

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Hundreds of migrants detained in Texas to be flown to San Diego



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By Phil Helsel

Hundreds of detainees from immigration agency facilities in Texas and elsewhere will be flown to San Diego for processing, it was reported Friday, as authorities struggle to handle an influx of migrants entering the country.

Three flights a week carrying about 130 people a flight would arrive in the San Diego area from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Customs and Border Protection Interim Chief Patrol Agent Douglas Harrison said Friday, according to NBC San Diego

Those people would come from facilities overwhelmed by a high number of immigrants, including those who are claiming asylum, but officials in Southern California are not expecting any unaccompanied minors, the station reported.

The federal border protection agency is calling the surge in migrants fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — a region sometimes called the Northern Triangle — a humanitarian and border security crisis.

“We’re in the middle of a humanitarian crisis and the numbers in Texas are staggering so the BP is helping out in those sectors to more efficiently process these folks,” an unidentified CBP official said, referring to the Border Patrol, according to Reuters.

The announcement comes as two Department of Homeland Security officials said the DHS is laying the groundwork for a plan to transport recent border crossers by plane to cities around the country and release them after processing.

Florida officials expressed anger on Thursday after learning the Trump administration was planning to release hundreds of migrants each month in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Beyond South Florida, DHS is considering other areas around the country where immigrants can be released, the two officials told NBC News.

It was not immediately clear if the flights from Texas to San Diego were part of that DHS plan.

Also on Friday, Customs and Border Protection warned people against trying to cross the Rio Grande River into the United States, calling crossings with small children an “alarming trend” that has resulted in deaths.

The agency said in a statement that since Oct. 1, 2018, there have been 10 water-related deaths in the Del Rio Sector, which covers parts of the Texas border.

On May 1, three people drowned, including a 10-month-old boy and a 7-year-old boy, when a raft carrying nine people capsized, sending everyone aboard into the water, CBP said.

Border Patrol agents rescued a man who was trying to cross the river with a 3-month-old boy strapped to his chest Thursday, the CBP said. The baby suffered water in his lungs and nearly drowned, the agency said.

“It’s disturbing what is taking place on our borders and witnessed by our Border Patrol agents every day,” Del Rio Sector Acting Chief Patrol Agent Randy Davis said in the CBP statement.

“This trend is not without tragic consequences,” he said. “Border Patrol agents are rescuing people, but have also had the grim task of recovering deceased bodies including children as young as 10-months-old from the Rio Grande River.”

Reuters contributed.

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The Trump administration has already built its case for Iran war



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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump may not need Congress to go to war with Iran.

That’s the case his lieutenants have been quietly building as tensions between the two nations have escalated.

The key elements involve drawing links between al Qaeda and Iran and casting Iran as a terrorist threat to the U.S. — which is exactly what administration officials have been doing in recent weeks.

That could give Trump the justification he needs to fight Iran under the still-in-effect 2001 use-of-force resolution without congressional approval.

That prospect is unsettling to most Democrats, and even some Republicans, in part because Iran didn’t attack the U.S. on 9/11, in part because there is a reluctance to engage U.S. forces in another theater of war, and in part because many lawmakers believe Congress has given too much of its war-making authority to the president over the years.

With Congress unlikely to grant him new authority to strike Iran under the current circumstances, and amid a campaign of “maximum pressure” against the regime in Tehran that has escalated tension between the two countries, Trump administration officials have sent strong signals that they will be ready to make an end run around lawmakers, using the 2001 authorization for the use of military force — or “AUMF” in Washington-speak — if necessary.

That law gave the president the power to use force against “nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier strike group to the region. Three U.S. officials told NBC that a surge in American forces in the region was a response in part to intelligence-gathering suggesting that the Iranian regime had given proxies a green light to attack U.S. personnel and assets in the region.

And in recent weeks, the Trump administration has accused Iran of assisting al Qaeda, designated an arm of the Iranian military as a foreign terrorist organization and accused Iran of being linked to a terrorist threat against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.

National Security Council officials declined to speak on the record with NBC about whether such incidents would satisfy the legal threshold necessary for the president to determine he had the authority to use force against Iran.

But former government lawyers familiar with the 2001 law and its applications say it’s obvious from those moves what the Trump administration is trying to do.

“The whole thing is building up to the notion that they don’t have to go to Congress for approval,” Yale University law professor Harold Koh, who served as the State Department’s top lawyer under Secretary Hillary Clinton, said in a telephone interview with NBC News.

Yet Koh said an attempt to shoehorn Iran into the 2001 AUMF is absurd and shouldn’t pass legal muster.

“The theory of war powers has to be that Congress doesn’t just sign off once,” he said. “The suggestion now that Iran attacked us on 9/11 is ridiculous.”

The original law essentially creates a two-part test for the president to make a determination that force is warranted: a country, group or person has aided al Qaeda and force is necessary to prevent a terrorist attack against the U.S. from that entity.

Under questioning from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a critic of the executive branch’s expansive view of its war powers under both Presidents Barack Obama and Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month that he would “leave it to the lawyers” to sort out whether Trump had the authority to go to war with Iran absent a new authorization from Congress.

But he also forwarded an argument that he has been making since the early days of the administration that is tantamount to a case that the first part of the test has been met.

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“The factual question with respect to Iran’s connections to Al-Qaeda is very real. They have hosted al Qaeda, they have permitted al Qaeda to transit their country,” he said at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “There is no doubt there is a connection between the Islamic Republic of Iran and al Qaeda. Period, full stop.”

There has been intense debate in recent years about the extent to which the remnants of al Qaeda have found assistance in Iran, with Iran hawks taking the position that the ties are deep and significant and others contending that attempts to link the Shia regime to terrorism carried out by Sunni groups are wrong or disingenuous.

But the deployment of more forces to the region to counter the threat of attacks on American personnel and assets, as well as the partial evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, could be seen as satisfying the second part of the use-of-force test. That is, the idea that force is appropriate to prevent a terrorist threat from a country that has given assistance to al Qaeda.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week that she appreciates that Trump has generally been reluctant to go to war and cast his advisers as the drivers of the current escalation of tensions. She said the president doesn’t currently have the power to go to war with Iran.

“The responsibility in the Congress is for Congress to declare war,” she said. “So I hope the president’s advisors recognize that they have no authorization to go forward in any way. They cannot call the authorization, AUMF, the authorization for the use of military force, that was passed in 2001, as any authorization to go forward in the Middle East now,”

Trump himself has left the door open.

Asked about the possibility this week, he said, “I hope not.”

But there’s little question that his administration is getting ready — and getting ready to go it alone.

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