Republicans purvey the myth of in-person voter fraud at the polls, for which there is no evidence to substantiate their conspiracy theory.
If voter fraud is going to occur, it will occur with early voting mail-in ballots. The hand-full of voters prosecuted for “double voting” in Arizona are snowbird residents who voted in their home state and also voted in Arizona. None served time.
But what happened in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district is not about voter fraud (the media really needs to stop using this term incorrectly). This is an actual case of election fraud — the stealing of an election by the GOP — through voter suppression of minority voters’ early mail-in ballots.
[A] local operative named Leslie McCrae Dowless ran his command center for Republican Mark Harris in the 9th Congressional District primary this spring.
Dowless sat at a desk at the back of one of the strip’s vacant storefronts, where he oversaw a crew of workers who collected absentee ballots from voters and updated the Harris campaign on the numbers, according to Jeff Smith, who is the building’s owner and a former Dowless friend.
Smith provided his account about the primary campaign to state investigators, who are examining whether Dowless’s activities then and in the general election violated North Carolina’s election laws, which allow only individual voters or designated close relatives to mail a ballot.
Dowless is now at the center of a burgeoning fraud investigation that has delayed the certification of Harris’s narrow victory and could prompt officials to call for a new election between him and Democrat Dan McCready, who are separated by 905 votes, according to unofficial returns.
The possibility that November’s vote will be tossed out has prompted an eruption of partisan accusations. The case is politically fraught for Republicans, who in North Carolina and across the country have pushed for voter-identification laws and other restrictions while warning without evidence about the threat of rampant voter fraud, particularly by immigrants in the country illegally.
Now, amid Democratic calls for investigations of a different kind of election fraud — one that allegedly benefited the GOP — Republicans have stayed largely silent about the allegations, instead accusing the state elections board of trying to steal the race.
On Monday, the board issued a subpoena to the Harris campaign, according to campaign attorney John Branch. The board is expected to issue one soon to Red Dome Group, a GOP consulting firm based in the suburbs of Charlotte that hired Dowless, according to two people familiar with the probe.
The elections board has collected information suggesting that high-level officials in the campaign may have been aware of Dowless’s activities, according to the two people.
In statements to The Washington Post, Branch and Harris’s chief consultant, Andy Yates, confirmed that Dowless was hired by Red Dome to work on the campaign but denied that officials were aware of any illegal activity.
The campaign “at all times believed he was working within the confines of North Carolina law,” Branch said. “The campaign is now aware that the State Board of Elections is conducting an investigation, and media reports have identified Mr. Dowless as part of that investigation. We are awaiting the outcome of that investigation like everybody else.”
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Wayne Goodwin, chair of the state Democratic Party, said Monday that the legislature’s newly proposed voter-ID law would do nothing to stop the kind of acts alleged in Bladen County. He said Republicans have repeatedly ignored absentee fraud and, in the face of the new allegations, have “gone silent, both here and nationally.”
Some Republicans have argued that irregularities in the absentee vote in the 9th District were not widespread enough to make a difference in the outcome and have called on the board to certify Harris’s win.
“Yeah we illegally destroyed ballots so they wouldn’t be counted. So what? We won.”
Two officials close to the investigation said it remains unclear how many mail-in absentee ballots were allegedly diverted.
Investigators with the bipartisan state elections board — which last week voted unanimously to delay certifying the race — have identified hundreds of potential witnesses to interview, many of them voters whose absentee ballots were never turned in, according to the people familiar with the probe. That raises the possibility of a weeks-long investigation and an uncertain start date for the next congressman from the 9th District.
Josh Lawson, general counsel for the board, declined to comment on the investigation, saying it was ongoing.
Separately, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman (D) told The Post on Monday that her office in Raleigh and the State Bureau of Investigation are also pursuing criminal investigations related to irregularities in mail-in ballots.
“We are not yet at the point of having connected all of the dots,” Freeman said, adding, “Certainly part of any investigation into these voting irregularities will include who may have knowledge and involvement.”
State elections officials said they have been working with the FBI and the office of Robert Higdon, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Higdon’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The state elections board’s probe is homing in on irregularities in mail-in balloting in the 9th District general election — most of them in Bladen County, a rural swath about 20 miles south of Fayetteville.
Unusually high numbers of mail-in ballots were requested in the county — and unusually high numbers of those requested ballots were never returned, according to state records.
A disproportionate number of unreturned ballots had been sent to voters of color, who tend to vote Democratic. Nearly 55 percent of ballots mailed to Native American voters and 36 percent mailed to African American voters were not returned, while the non-return rate among white voters in the district was just 18 percent, according to state records.
In one subsidized apartment complex in Bladenboro, called Village Oak, half a dozen voters interviewed by The Post on Sunday said they were approached this fall by a woman who asked them to hand over their absentee ballots. Two other voters in other parts of the county told The Post similar stories.
“I had it for like four days,” said Datesha Montgomery, 27, who lives in a subsidized complex in Elizabethtown called Twisted Hickory. “And then she showed up and asked could she get my ballot. I still hadn’t filled it out. I stood on the porch and I filled it out. I put two names down and she told me the rest wasn’t important and she would fill it out herself.”
Later, Montgomery said, Democratic activists warned her about rumors of ballot fraud, so she canceled her mail-in ballot and voted in person.
This fall, state election officials were so alarmed by the spike in ballot requests from Bladen County that they sent a flier in October to every voter in the 9th District’s share of the county, warning them not to turn over their ballots to others.
“At one point, Bladen had 12 percent of its voters requesting absentee ballots,” said one official with knowledge of the investigation who requested anonymity because of the ongoing probe. “You know, that’s ridiculously high as a percentage. And so once we saw that, we knew immediately, like, okay, either they just became really enthused about the prospect of voting absentee or we have a massive effort underway.”
State elections board investigators have spoken with witnesses who link Dowless to the irregularities, according to the two people familiar with the probe.
Dowless, 62, who serves as vice chairman of the Bladen Soil and Water Conservation District, has a criminal record. Court records show he was convicted of fraud, perjury and passing a worthless check in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
He first came under scrutiny from the state elections board in 2016, when officials began investigating similar ballot irregularities, leading to a public hearing.
That year, in the 9th District primary election, Dowless was on the campaign payroll of Todd Johnson, a Union County insurance salesman who also won a curious number of the mail-in ballots in Bladen County: 211, compared with four for Harris, who was also a candidate that year, and just one for the incumbent, Rep. Robert Pittenger (R), records show. Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.
The state elections board referred the case to the U.S. attorney, as well as the Wake County prosecutor, who is continuing to investigate, officials said.
Yates, Harris’s consultant, said that Dowless was hired by the campaign this year to contact absentee voters and urge them to vote for Harris on their mail-in ballots.
Before the May primary, Dowless set up his operation inside an empty storefront that Smith said he allowed him to use. With an office next door, Smith said he visited regularly and got a good view of Dowless’s operation.
He said Dowless told him he had a crew of about a dozen workers — many of whom he saw at the office — who moved from one precinct to the next, knocking on voters’ doors and offering them ballot request forms.
Once the absentee ballots were mailed to voters, Dowless used public lists of mail-in ballot recipients and sent his crew to collect them and promise to turn them in, Smith said.
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Smith said that in the primary, Dowless focused on three Bladen County precincts in particular: Bladenboro 1, Bladenboro 2 and Bethel, places that had high numbers of mail-in votes, according to state records.
Smith said he never saw Dowless destroy a ballot.
Yates said that Dowless called him regularly to give him updates on the number of absentee-ballot requests he had collected but that they did not discuss numbers of absentee votes he was delivering for Harris.
In the spring primary, Harris defeated the incumbent, Pittenger, by fewer than 1,000 votes — thanks in part to winning an overwhelming 96 percent of Bladen County’s absentee mail-in ballots.
Smith said it was after the primary that he and Dowless had the falling out. Dowless moved his office after Smith learned that Dowless was helping the reelection campaign of Sheriff James McVicker (R), Smith said.
Smith, 48, who owns an online sweepstakes parlor across the street from his commercial strip in Dublin, was charged with running an illegal gambling operation after McVicker’s office raided the parlor in 2015. He disputes the allegations, saying his business is legal.
Smith said Dowless bragged about his ability to deliver as many as 900 absentee ballots in Bladen County, and Smith said he talked excitedly of expanding his operation beyond Bladen in his work for Harris in the 9th District, which stretches more than 100 miles from Charlotte to the Fayetteville area in the east.
Smith said Dowless also spoke of running the absentee-ballot programs for multiple candidates. Campaign records show that he was paid this year by a failed Charlotte City Council candidate, Pete Givens (R), as well as McVicker.
Smith was in the middle of an interview with The Post on Saturday when an investigator with the State Board of Elections called him. In front of a reporter, he told the investigator the story again, from the beginning.
In the primary and general elections, a large number of returned mail-in ballots came from a single street in Bladenboro, according to state records — Pecan Street, where the Village Oak Apartments, a cluster of public-housing units built around a giant oak tree, are located.
In the spring, 60 ballots for the Republican primary were mailed from that precinct on March 19 — 23 of them to Village Oak. All 23 were returned to the board on the same day — March 26, records show.
Seven residents of Village Oak interviewed Sunday recounted seeing the operation in action.
Local North Carolina television news station WSOC investigative report Channel 9 uncovers similarities between absentee ballots in U.S. House District 9 race:
What Channel 9 found appears to be a targeted effort to illegally pick up ballots, in which even the person picking them up had no idea whether those ballots were even delivered to the elections board.
Consistently, Channel 9 found the same people signing as witnesses for the people voting, which is very rare.
Of the 159 submitted and accepted absentee ballot envelopes, below is the breakdown of those who signed as witnesses:
- Woody Hester witnessed 44
- James Singletary witnessed 42
- Lisa Britt witnessed 42
- Ginger Eason witnessed 28
- Jessica Dowless witnessed 15
- Cheryl Kinlaw witnessed 13
- Deborah Edwards witnessed 11
- Sandra Dowless witnessed 10
Many times, people on that list witnessed ballots together.
Channel 9’s political reporter Joe Bruno went door-to-door in Bladen County trying to find out who these people are.
Bruno visited Ginger Eason. She told him why her name appeared so many times as a witness.
“I was helping McCrae pick up ballots,” Eason said.
Eason said Leslie McCrae Dowless, Jr. paid her $75 to $100 a week to go around and pick up finished absentee ballots.
Eason said she never discarded ballots or saw who people were voting for, but after picking them up, she didn’t mail them. She said she gave them to Dowless.
She said Dowless never told her what she was doing was illegal.
Popular Information reports, EXCLUSIVE: Absentee ballot envelopes in North Carolina fit into “a pattern of fraud”:
The envelopes of the absentee ballots are a rich source of information because they require not only the signature of the voter but the signature of two witnesses. Pending an investigation by the North Carolina State Board of Elections, which voted unanimously against certifying the election, these envelopes have been impounded.
Under normal circumstances, however, these envelopes are available at the local election board for review as public information. Before the Board of Election’s action, 162 of the absentee ballot envelopes were photocopied. Popular Information obtained the images of these envelopes through a source.
Gerry Cohen, the former special counsel for the North Carolina general assembly and an expert in the state’s election law, told Popular Information the envelopes “fit in with a pattern of fraud.”
Typically, there would be a wide variety of witnesses for absentee ballots. A random assortment of voters would chose to vote by mail-in absentee and then have family, friends or co-workers would serve as witnesses. The ballots obtained by Popular Information, however, show that a small group of people served as witnesses for these Bladen County ballots. Some of the witnesses signed more than 40 absentee envelopes.
Several of the witnesses are related to Leslie McCrae Dowless, the man at the center of the controversy who has previously been convicted of felony fraud.
In all, a group of just eight witnesses appear on over 130 of the 162 absentee ballot envelopes obtained by Popular Information.
UPDATE: Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the incoming House majority leader said Democrats might refuse to seat a North Carolina Republican next year unless and until “substantial” questions about the integrity of his election are resolved. Democrats could refuse to seat North Carolina Republican, Hoyer says.
Hoyer’s comments, and the increasing criticism from other national Democrats, represent a new threat to Harris’s candidacy — suggesting that even if his apparent narrow victory is ultimately certified by the state, Harris could be subject to a months-long process in the House to determine whether he is ultimately sworn in.
UPDATE: The Charlotte Observer‘s editorial board has called for a new election in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district.