Elections

Harris’ consultant denies knowing about illegal activities by Dowless during campaign

Bladen poll official describes poll workers viewing early voting results

Agnes Willis describes poll workers results from the an early voting site in Bladen County in 2018 and looked at results from the Sheriff's race. She was testifying at a NC State Board of Elections hearing on voting in the 9th District in 2018.
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Agnes Willis describes poll workers results from the an early voting site in Bladen County in 2018 and looked at results from the Sheriff's race. She was testifying at a NC State Board of Elections hearing on voting in the 9th District in 2018.

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Election fraud investigation

Read more about the investigation into the 9th Congressional District

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The Bladen County political operative at the center of possible election fraud in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District assured the top consultant for Republican Mark Harris’ campaign that he was running a legal operation throughout the 2018 election, the consultant said Tuesday.

And he believed McCrae Dowless through Harris’ upset victory in the primary and an apparent victory in the general election. He believed Dowless until Monday, the first day of testimony before the state board of elections into voting irregularities in the district.

“I don’t know what to believe about McCrae Dowless. I don’t know whether or not to believe anything Mr. Dowless ever told me,” said Andy Yates, co-founder of the Cornelius-based Red Dome Group, a political consulting firm.

Yates testified on the second day of the board’s hearing that Dowless knew the details of absentee ballot law well and preached that he and his workers were following it carefully. He spoke one day after workers for Dowless outlined the illegal collection of mail-in absentee ballots.

“I’ve worked too hard to build up my reputation in this business, worked too hard to build up Red Dome, to hire one person and let all that be torn down,” Yates said.

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Andy Yates, a political consultant with Red Dome Group, prepares to testify under oath during the second day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com

State board investigators on Monday said they had uncovered “a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme operated during the 2018 general election in Bladen and Robeson counties.” The counties are located within the 9th district. The state board has declined to certify results in the district. Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in unofficial totals.

McCrae Dowless, the person at the center of alleged election actiivites in NC's 9th District, refuses to testify unless granted immunity at a NC State Board of Elections hearing in Ralegh, NC, Feb 18, 2019. The board refused to grant immunity,.

Dowless, a convicted felon and elected official in Bladen County, is at the center of the investigation. Dowless declined to testify Monday unless he was granted immunity. Yates said Harris personally hired Dowless to conduct get-out-the-vote operations in Bladen County before Harris hired Yates.

“I felt Mr. Dowless was a done deal before I was even brought onto the campaign,” Yates testified.

In several hours of testimony, Yates explained Dowless’ relationship with the Harris campaign — chronicling near-daily phone conversations between himself and Dowless, Dowless’ craving of political information, “frequent conversations” between Harris and Dowless and how little oversight Red Dome had over Dowless, which did not require him to turn in printed invoices.

The Harris campaign paid Dowless through Yates’ Red Dome Group. It paid $4 for absentee ballot requests in the primary election and $5 for absentee ballot requests in the general election. The campaign paid Dowless $1,200 per month during the primary and $1,625 per month during the general election, in addition to reimbursing Dowless for office space, office supplies and workers to collect request forms, place yard signs and staff the polls.

Dowless was paid $131,375 by Red Dome Group — with all but about $18,000 coming for work on the Harris campaign. Dowless also worked for Red Dome Group clients Bladen County Sheriff Jim McVicker, state Rep. Brenden Jones and Columbus County sheriff candidate Jody Greene.

Yates said Dowless on numerous times assured him that he told his workers not to handle, touch, collect or mail in absentee ballots. Yates said testimony on Monday changed his mind.

“I was shocked and disturbed to find out that was not the case,” Yates said, his voice rising. “I’m not going to put up with that junk, and frankly that crap.”

Harris received 437 mail-in absentee ballots to 17 for incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger in the GOP primary in May, a margin that Yates attributed to the resources that the campaign devoted to the county and Dowless’ knowledge of the county and its people.

Harris is expected to be called to testify Wednesday, board chairman Bob Cordle said late Tuesday. His attorney said he will take the stand and answer questions.

“He has absolutely nothing to hide,” said Alex Dale, one of Harris’ attorneys.

But attorneys for the McCready campaign said testimony tied Harris to the alleged fraud.

“Mark Harris hired Mr. Dowless. He communicated with Mr. Dowless about what the program was and he was in regular contact with Mr. Dowless,” said Marc Elias.

Earlier on Tuesday, testimony established that local election officials prematurely tabulated early vote results at Bladen County’s lone early voting site.

Michele Maultsby supervised the single early voting site, at a Bladen County library. She said that she secured a tape with early voting results at the end of the day and took it to the county’s election headquarters.

N.C. State Board of Elections executive director Kim Strach outlines some of the evidence that will be presented in what she called 'Unlawful ... absentee ballot scheme’ operated in 9th District' during a hearing in Raleigh, NC Feb. 18, 2019.

Workers are not supposed to tabulate the results or look at the tallies until Election Day. Tabulating early is a violation of election law and could give one side a competitive advantage.

Poll worker Agnes Willis had suggested in an affidavit filed in mid-December that the results had been tabulated early and had leaked. At the time, Republicans said if the early-voting totals had indeed leaked, it would justify a new election.

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Agnes Willis, a Bladen County poll worker, prepares to testify under oath during the second day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com

“This action by election officials would be a fundamental violation of the sense of fair play, honesty, and integrity that the Republican Party stands for,” state GOP Chairman Robin Hayes said in a statement in December. “The people involved in this must be held accountable and should it be true, this fact alone would likely require a new election.”

On Tuesday, Willis said she was in a room with other Bladen County poll workers on the last day of early voting last November. At the close of early voting, she said she saw a colleague looking at the machine tape of election results.

Willis said she heard her colleague cry, “Oh my God.”

“I walked over to see what he was looking at,” she said. “He had his finger on the sheriff’s race. He said, ‘I thought the black guy had it’.”

The Bladen sheriff race featured an African-American candidate (Hakeem Brown) against a white candidate (McVicker).

Willis and two other poll workers testified about what they saw. Though Willis said several people looked at the tape — which resembles a roll of cash register receipts — neither she nor others said they knew if anybody leaked it.

When the hearing ends, the board will vote to either certify Harris’ victory, call for a new election or deadlock, which would throw the matter into limbo.

Republicans have since argued that Harris should be certified the winner if there’s no evidence that ballot fraud would have affected the election’s outcome. Democrats say there’s evidence the contest was “tainted,” justifying a new election.

Witness Lisa Britt testifys that McRae Dowless told her and her mother to deny any wrongdoing by him and to take the 5th Amendment at a Board of Elections hearing in Raleigh, NC Feb. 18, 2019. She says Dowless gave her the note on Feb. 14, 2019.

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Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.
Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.
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