Latest NC-09 mystery: Why did Harris GOTV specialist have over 800 absentee ballots?

As mysteries go, this one won’t qualify at the level of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, or perhaps not even Encyclopedia Brown. A witness has filed a deposition alleging that Leslie McCrae Dowless possessed over 800 absentee ballots in the run-up to the midterm election in North Carolina’s ninth congressional district. The GOTV specialist for Mark Harris’ winning House campaign should not have had any other ballots than his own, and now people wonder what exactly Dowless did with them:


Kenneth Simmons and his wife said they saw McCrae Dowless — who is listed as a “person of interest” by the state board of elections — outside of a campaign event in the fall.

At that time, Simmons said Dowless was holding more than 800 ballots in his possession. Simmons and his wife were immediately concerned as to why Dowless had them and why they were not turned in to the board of elections.

Simmons says he came forward because he feels this could be a violation of voters’ Constitutional rights. He signed an affidavit in front of a WECT reporter on Tuesday. …

Dowless is accused of tampering with or destroying absentee ballots to benefit candidates he worked for in Bladen County, including Mark Harris for the 9th Congressional District.

The Hill has more of Simmons’ testimony:

“During the campaign, my wife and I were working putting out signs for a local candidate,” Simmons said in the affidavit, according to a copy provided to the WRAL News by the North Carolina Democratic Party.

“While we were in Dublin attending a meeting of Republicans, we spoke with McRae (sic) Dowless. During the conversation, we noticed that Mr. Dowless had in his possession a large number of absentee ballots. I questioned his reason for having that many ballots. He stated that he had over 800 ballots in his possession. I asked him why he had not turned them in. He sated (sic) you don’t do that until the last day because the opposition would know how many votes they had to make up.

“My concern was that these ballots were not going to be turned in.”


Just to remind everyone, Harris only won the election by 905 votes. Possession of the ballots violates the law in itself; North Carolina requires voters or a direct family member to transmit absentee ballots themselves. That bar on “ballot harvesting” preserves the chain of custody for voting and keeps any suspicion of tampering from damaging the credibility of elections.

That’s already out the window in the NC-09 race, of course. People already suspect Dowless might have trashed non-Harris votes and only turned in those ballots that supported his employer. But what if Harris actually marked the ballots himself? Would Simmons have known whether those ballots were completed — or blank?

Or were they ballots at all? WRAL reports that Dowless might claim they were absentee ballot applications, which wouldn’t have been illegal to hold:

The Simmonses told The Times that Dowless spoke to them during the meeting while holding a thick packet of documents they could not see up close. They told The Times that Dowless boasted he had 800 or 900 signed and completed absentee ballots in his possession.

Some in North Carolina politics have suggested that perhaps these were not absentee ballots, but ballot request forms voters send in to have mail-in ballots sent to them. It would be unusual for someone to have so many of those forms, but not illegal. In his affidavit, Kenneth Simmons repeatedly says they were ballots, but he also told The times he was not well versed in state election laws.


It doesn’t make much sense to hold applications, though, especially not for the strategic reasons Simmons says Dowless stated. A GOTV specialist would want those out immediately in order to make sure that their voters got the ballots in time for the election, and then submitted them in time too.

None of this helps Harris to insist on certifying the election result, and he won’t be helped by this photo dug up by local reporter Joe Bruno, who has done much of the shoe-leather reporting that blew open this scandal. This pose between Harris and Dowless comes from March 2018, well before the general-election ballot issues that have frozen the NC-09 election in place, but perhaps as Dowless was preparing his operation for Harris’ tough primary against incumbent Robert Pittenger:

The implication here is that Harris’ attempts to distance himself from Dowless may be less than credible:

Harris’ connection to Dowless was in place before the photo was taken.

Former 2017 Charlotte City Council candidate Pete Givens told Channel 9 Mark Harris introduced him to Dowless.

Records show Givens paid Dowless $800 for consulting fees.

“Mark told me about this guy’s process of, you know, that he had a process, he didn’t know what it was, and he was going down to meet because he said ‘maybe this is something you want to do,'” Givens said.


There are now allegations that vote totals were shared by precincts prematurely as well, leading both parties to call for a special election. The question still remains whether that will encompass a new primary as well. The New York Times called Pittenger a potential victim of Dowless as well, but that there’s not much that can be done about it:

In that primary against Representative Pittenger, Mr. Harris won 437 of the 456 ballots cast through the mail in Bladen County; his overall margin of victory was only 828 votes. By contrast, in an earlier run against Mr. Pittinger in the 2016 primary, Mr. Harris won only four of 226 such ballots in the county. Mr. Dowless did not work for Mr. Harris in that 2016 campaign.

North Carolina officials are now examining the May primary to see whether they could establish patterns of election fraud and gather evidence for possible criminal prosecutions.

But even if fraud was found in the primary, state officials would be limited in their ability to overturn the Harris-Pittinger outcome given state law and the status of those primary results. The incoming Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives could refuse to seat a winner from the Ninth District, leading to a do-over primary and general election, but it is unclear if Representative Nancy Pelosi and her allies would opt for that.


Nevertheless, the state GOP will push for a primary do-over, CNN reports:

Republicans in the North Carolina legislature are seeking to change state law to guarantee that any call for a new general election in the scandal-plagued 9th Congressional District will also include a re-run of the party primaries.

The GOP-controlled state House and Senate passed a provision requiring a new primary on Wednesday. It is the clearest sign yet that, should there be a new election, Republicans in North Carolina are inclined to move beyond current nominee Mark Harris, who appeared to have secured a narrow victory in November over Democrat Dan McCready. …

It is unclear whether Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will sign the Republican bill. “North Carolinians deserve honest and fair elections and the Governor is reviewing this legislation carefully,” said Ford Porter, a spokesperson for Cooper.

The odds of Cooper signing this bill are better than the chances that a Nancy Pelosi-led House would demand a new primary, which are as close to nil as it gets. Cooper has to run for office in a state where Republicans still compete effectively.  If Dowless’ primary activities could be established as potentially decisive, pressure might increase on Cooper to sign the bill and for the election board to order the whole election tossed out and a true do-over put in its place. Otherwise, the GOP will be stuck with Harris, who barely won the last time out in an R+8 district even with Dowless’ apparent fraud. His chances in a general-election-only rerun look pretty grim.


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