A new election might be the least of the worries facing a few Republicans in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district. The board of elections has now subpoenaed Mark Harris’ campaign and are expected to issue another subpoena to a GOP consulting firm that provided significant absentee-ballot assistance to Harris. They want to get answers about exactly what Leslie McCrae Dowless was doing with those absentee ballots:
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. …
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 board has decided to hold off on certifying the election until after significant anomalies in absentee balloting get explained. The problem might go all the way back to the primaries, where two counties in particular came in extraordinarily heavily for Harris over incumbent Robert Pittinger. Both counties also had significantly higher non-returns of absentee ballots than district-wide in the general election — 40% in Bladen County and 62% in Robeson County, even while the overall non-return rate was only 24%. That high rate, combined with a final gap of only 905 votes, is what first caught the interest of the elections board.
Now, however, they believe they have more direct evidence of tampering:
As North Carolina officials investigate allegations that absentee ballots were tampered with in a tight congressional race, a review of some of those ballots revealed many were signed by the same small group of people — some of whom are connected to a longtime operative working for the Republican candidate’s campaign.
North Carolina requires witnesses to sign absentee ballots. Usually, those witnesses are family members or friends. But a set of 161 absentee ballots for the 9th Congressional District obtained by CNN on Monday showed that the same nine people signed at least 10 absentee ballots each.
Many of those nine people who signed ballots seem to know each other, checks of public records and their social media accounts showed. Some are also associates of Leslie McCrae Dowless, a longtime North Carolina operative who worked for the campaign of Mark Harris, the Republican who leads the race by 905 votes.
How exactly did that work? Jeffrey Smith, a former friend of Dowless, told CNN that Dowless made sure that the absentee ballots routed back through his office:
“He gets workers to go get people to sign up on a sheet of paper for an absentee ballot,” Smith said in a phone interview with CNN. “Say you live in a Section 8 housing area, they will collect these requests. He says you don’t have to leave your house, you can just vote at home.”
Smith added Dowless then sends people to “harvest” the ballots and he mails them to the election office.
The implication here is that Dowless got the ballots and then sorted through them looking for McCready votes — and discarded them. Having his own people act as witnesses to the votes and then having the ballots “harvested” by his team would at least theoretically give them the opportunity to review the votes and interfere with the process. That’s still just a theory, but the subpoenas make it pretty clear that the elections board wants to run that theory out as far as it might go.
Dowless is no stranger to investigations, either. The Charlotte Observer reported yesterday that the GOP operative has a rap sheet that includes fraud and perjury:
A man who worked as an “independent contractor” for Republican Mark Harris’ campaign in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District is a convicted felon who faced jail time for fraud and perjury, according to court records.
Over the last two decades, he has been paid by at least nine candidates, all for get-out-the-vote work, according to state records.
Leslie McCrae Dowless was convicted of felony fraud in 1992 in Iredell County, according to court records. Dowless and his wife were accused of taking out an insurance policy on a dead man and collecting nearly $165,000 from his death, according to a 1991 Fayetteville Observer article. He served more than six months of a two-year prison sentence, according to court records.
Dowless, now 62, was convicted of felony perjury in 1990, according to court records.
Good grief. Everyone deserves a second chance, but with election fraud a continuous theme in Republican campaigns, one might think they’d take a little more care in vetting their own GOTV managers. Had this election not been so close, perhaps no one would have noticed. They’re noticing now, though, and it doesn’t look good. Neither does Dowless’ more recent history in electioneering:
In the primary, Harris won 437 absentee votes in Bladen to just 17 for Pittenger. In the general election, Harris won 420 absentee votes to McCready’s 258 in the county. The number of mail-in absentee ballots was higher in Bladen County than in more populous neighboring counties Robeson and Cumberland.
In the 2016 congressional primary, Dowless worked for Todd Johnson. Johnson got 221 absentee votes to 4 for Harris and 1 for Pittenger. In the district as a whole, Johnson finished third.
Double hmmmm. Given what has already been uncovered and the reluctance of the board to certify the election, it looks like we’re heading into a do-over. If so, it will be interesting to see whether Pittenger petitions for a full do-over, including the primary election, and whether Democrats who want a general-election rerun would object to starting over from scratch.