Understanding the election fraud allegations in North Carolina’s 9th district

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This story was updated with the latest developments at 2:13 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7.

One month after Election Day, all eyes are on North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

Republican Mark Harris scored an apparent victory in the district, defeating Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in November. But North Carolina’s state board of elections has not certified the results of the election, citing irregularities among mail-in absentee ballots. The board plans a hearing on or before Dec. 21.

The 9th district stretches from Charlotte to Fayetteville, hugging the South Carolina border. It is currently represented by Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Republican whom Harris defeated in May’s Republican primary.

To see all of The News & Observer’s coverage of the possible election fraud, click here. To see all of The Charlotte Observer’s coverage of the possible election fraud, click here. Each page contains all of the stories from both news organizations.

The latest, Dec. 7

• Harris’ campaign still owes Red Dome Group more than $43,000, most of it for Bladen County absentee work, according to campaign finance reports filed Thursday night. Red Dome Group, a Charlotte-area political consulting firm founded by Andy Yates, was paid nearly $430,000 by the Harris campaign during the 2018 election cycle. Here is a look at the group.

• The Harris campaign, Red Dome Group and the campaign of Bladen County Sheriff Jim McVicker have been issued subpoenas by the state board of elections.

• McCready on Thursday night withdrew his concession, The Charlotte Observer reported. McCready’s campaign has sent out fundraising emails.

“I didn’t serve overseas in the Marines just to come home to N.C. and watch a criminal, bankrolled by my opponent, take away people’s very right to vote,” McCready said in a tweet. “Today I withdraw my concession and call on Mark Harris to end his silence and tell us exactly what he knew, and when.”

• Pittenger’s campaign alerted NC GOP officials and officials with the National Republican Congressional Campaign about irregularities in the May primary, The Washington Post reported Thursday. In the primary, Harris received 437 mail-in absentee votes in Bladen County, while Pittenger received 17. NC GOP executive director Dallas Woodhouse and chairman Robin Hayes told McClatchy that concerns may have been raised, but there was little the party could do. Woodhouse called Harris “an innocent victim.”

The NRCC forcefully denied being told by Pittenger aides. “It’s an incredibly untruthful thing to say from people who are trying to shift blame away from themselves,” NRCC communications director Matt Gorman told McClatchy. “The only thing Pittenger and his team did was beg us to retire his debt, which we did.”

• House Democrats in Washington, D.C., have begun speaking out about the election — with Rep. Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, telling McClatchy he wants an entirely new election, including primaries. Rep. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat, said in a tweet that the House “must consider all remedies, up to and including a special election.” The House can call for a new election. Incoming speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House could take the “extraordinary step” of calling for a new election.

• The current investigation by the state board of elections is, at least, the fifth investigation into elections in Bladen County since 2010, The News & Observer reported. “Bladen County has a troubled history of political groups exploiting the use of absentee ballots in an effort to skew support for a specific candidate or group of candidates,” wrote Jon David, district attorney for Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties, in a Jan. 26, 2018 letter to the State Bureau of Investigation’s interim assistant director. “These groups package the anticipated ability to garner absentee ballots as a commodity to be brokered.”

• The investigation is not confined to just Bladen County. Investigators from the state board have seized documents from Robeson County and returned to the county on Tuesday to collect more information about the county’s board of elections, The News & Observer reported. Nearly 1,200 absentee ballots were not returned in the county, including 822 from registered Democrats.

• A group of North Carolina Republicans lawmakers called for an end to the state board investigation and the creation of a bipartisan task force to handle the investigation into voting irregularities and possible election fraud, The News & Observer reported.

Leslie McCrae Dowless poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, NC on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com@newsobser

Why didn’t the state board certify?

• On Nov. 27, the nine-member North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement voted unanimously not to certify the results of several elections, including the 9th district, The Charlotte Observer reported.

“I’m very familiar with unfortunate activities that have been happening down in my part of the state,” then-vice chair Joshua Malcolm, a Robeson County Democrat, told the board. “And I am not going to turn a blind eye to what took place to the best of my understanding which has been ongoing for a number of years that has repeatedly been referred to the United States attorney and the district attorneys for them to take action and clean it up. And in my opinion those things have not taken place.”

The board is made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and one unaffiliated member.

• The board met again on Nov. 30 and again declined to certify the results in the 9th district. The board, in a 7-2 vote, called for an evidentiary hearing due “to claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities related to absentee mail ballots” and “to assure that the election is determined without taint of fraud or corruption and without irregularities that may have changed the result of an election,” Malcolm said.

No hearing date has been set.

• The board’s chairman Andy Penry resigned Saturday over unrelated tweets, The News & Observer reported. Gov. Roy Cooper promoted Malcolm to chairman and appointed former board member Robert Cordle to the board Monday, The News & Observer reported.

What happened?

• The North Carolina Democratic Party, in a letter to the board dated Nov. 29, wrote “more information has emerged to cast further doubt as to the basic fairness of the election.” The party included notarized affidavits from voters in the district, The Charlotte Observer reported.

In those affidavits:

Datesha Montgomery said that on Oct. 12, a woman came by her house and told her she was collecting absentee ballots. In the affidavit, Montgomery said she voted for two candidates: one for sheriff, the other for school board. The woman told her “the others were not important. I gave her the ballot and she said she would finish it herself. I signed the ballot and she left. It was not sealed up at any time.”

Emma Shipman said a woman came to her house and told her she was assigned to collect absentee ballots. “I filled out the ballot while she waited outside and gave it to her. . . . She took the ballot and put it in an envelope and never sealed it or asked me to sign it. Then she left. . . . I thought she was legitimate.”

Lucy Young said she received an absentee ballot even though she didn’t request one. She’d already voted early in person.

An analysis of the vote totals also indicated some irregularities, according to election results on the state board’s website. In Bladen County, Harris won mail-in absentee ballots 420 to McCready’s 258, or more than 61 percent. It was the only country in the district where Harris won mail-in absentee ballots, including Union County where Harris won the overall vote with more than 59 percent.

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, has analyzed the election data. He noted that Harris’ winning margin in mail-in ballots means he had to win all ballots from registered Republican and unaffiliated voters.

“To have each and every one of those unaffiliated voters vote Republican, that’s pretty astonishing,” Bitzer told The Charlotte Observer. “If that’s the case, there’s a very concerted effort to use that method to one candidate’s advantage. . . . But at that level there’s something else beyond a concerted effort that could be at work.”

In the primary, Harris received 437 mail-in absentee votes to 17 for Pittenger, the incumbent. Harris won the race by 828 votes overall.

In the 2016 Republican primary, Harris received four mail-in absentee votes and Pittenger received one. Todd Johnson, who finished third overall, received 221.

A man named Leslie McCrae Dowless worked for Johnson’s campaign in 2016 and Harris’ campaign in 2018.

“He was an independent contractor who worked on grassroots for the campaign, independent of the campaign ... as he’s done for a number of campaigns over the years,” Andy Yates, Harris’ top strategist and the founder of Red Dome Group, told The Charlotte Observer.

Who is McCrae Dowless?

• Dowless, 62, is the vice chair of the Bladen County Soil and Water Conservation District, an elected position. He has worked for at least nine candidates for various offices in North Carolina, all in a “get out the vote” capacity. He is a registered Republican, but had voted in Democratic primaries until 2016, according to elections records.

• In 1992, he was convicted of felony fraud and sentenced to two years in prison, The News & Observer reported Monday. He served six months, according to court records. A 1991 Fayettevile Observer article said Dowless and his wife were accused of taking out an insurance policy on a dead man and collecting nearly $165,000 from his death.

Leslie McCrae Dowless poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, NC on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com@newsobser

• In an affidavit, Dwight Sheppard of St. Pauls, N.C., wrote that on Election Day at a polling site in Dublin, he “overhead a group of people talking, and someone said that Leslie McCrae Dowless, Jr., would receive a bonus in the amount of $40,000.00 from the Mark Harris campaign if Mark Harris won the election over Dan McCready.” Sheppard is a fire investigator in Bladen County.

• Barbie Silvas, a Bladenboro resident, told The News & Observer that people came around her apartment complex offering to help residents vote absentee. “They would say, ‘I’m here for McCrae with the voting thing,” she said.

• Many of the absentee ballots were signed by the same witnesses, according to Popular Info, a newsletter produced by Think Progress founder Judd Legum. He reported that he saw 162 absentee ballots and some witnesses had signed as many as 44 of them.

• Ginger Eason, who signed dozens of mail-in absentee ballots as a witness, according to WSOC-TV, told the station that Dowless paid her $75 to $100 a week to pick up finished absentee ballots. “I was helping McCrae pick up ballots,” she said. She told the station that she did not take the ballots to the board of elections, but instead gave them back to Dowless.

• Jeff Smith, a building owner in Dublin, told The Washington Post and state investigators that Dowless “oversaw a crew of workers who collected absentee ballots from voters and updated the Harris campaign on the numbers,” according to The Post.

Jeff Smith stands in one of the former election offices of Republican Mark Harris. The Dublin, N.C., office was run by Smith’s former associate McCrae Dowless, whom Smith considered a friend before a revelation about Dowless’ political work. Election officials are investigating abnormalities in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, where Harris ran for the U.S. House. Justin Kase Conder For The Washington Post

• Dowless denied any wrongdoing to The Charlotte Observer, but has not returned numerous voice messages this week.

• John Branch, the campaign’s attorney, told the Post the campaign “at all times believed (Dowless) was working within the confines of North Carolina law.”

• Harris introduced Dowless to a candidate for the Charlotte City Council. Pete Givens told The Charlotte Observer that he met with Dowless and with Michael Dickerson, Mecklenburg County’s director of elections. “He didn’t come in in a three-piece suit, let’s put it that way,” Dickerson said. “He was sort of a country folk kind of guy.” Campaign records show Givens paid Dowless $800 for consulting in May 2017.

• Dowless has a reputation in Bladen County as a man who knows a lot of people and likes to work in politics. He’s worked on local campaigns for a long time but started getting into statewide politics only around 2010, said Ken Waddell, a former Democratic state representative who employed Dowless for his 2012 campaign.

“He’s got a lot of kinfolks in Bladen County,” said Waddell, which made Dowless an asset to any campaign. “Anytime you can get in touch with someone who knows a lot of people, and can get you in front of a lot of people, that’s what you want to do.”

But Dowless didn’t just work for Waddell in 2012 — he also worked for Waddell’s primary opponent, Democrat Al Leonard, campaign finance reports show. Leonard paid Dowless $1,500, while Waddell paid him $6,825. Waddell said he didn’t know Dowless was playing both sides until after the election.

“I wasn’t too happy about that,” said Waddell.

He said he paid Dowless to put out signs, hand out campaign literature, coordinate poll volunteers and encourage absentee voters. He didn’t hear about any wrongdoing, Waddell said.

“I didn’t see any evidence of him doing something flagrantly wrong,” said Waddell.

Returns show absentee by mail ballots, the kind in question now in the 9th District, didn’t play a big role in his race against Leonard. Waddell received 96 absentee by mail votes, while Leonard received 36 — well below 1 percent of the total 13,000 ballots cast.

Waddell, who retired in 2016 from the legislature, said Dowless is a friendly person who enjoys the social aspects of campaigning.

“He’s the kind of person that can walk up to anyone and start talking to them,” said Waddell. “He’s the kind of person who likes the campaigning.”

Is it legal to pick up ballots from voters?

• In short, no. North Carolina state law says that it is a felony “for any person to take into that person’s possession for delivery to a voter or for return to a county board of elections the absentee ballot of any voter, provided, however, that this prohibition shall not apply to a voter’s near relative or the voter’s legal guardian.”

• The “improper delivery of an absentee ballot is not itself sufficient to discount the ballot,” according to the state board. Officials would have to consider improper delivery along with other evidence, including any evidence of tampering, in determining whether the container return envelope has been properly executed and therefore whether the ballot should be counted.

Who is investigating?

• The state board has four investigators in their investigative division and they are all working on the issue, the board’s spokesman Patrick Gannon told The News & Observer on Monday. The board’s chief investigator, Joan Fleming, took Bladen County’s absentee ballots during the week of the election, said Cynthia Shaw, the county elections director.

• The Wake County district attorney is investigating Bladen County ballots amid fraud claims, The News & Observer’s Dan Kane reported. The Wake County investigation began with allegations about 2016 voting but now incorporates the allegations raised in the 2018 primary and general election, Kane wrote.

• The FBI and the office of the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina are working with state election officials, The Washington Post reported Monday. A spokesman for the Eastern District told The News & Observer that he could not “confirm or deny any ongoing investigation.”

• The board issued a subpoena to the Harris campaign Monday, the campaign’s attorney told The Washington Post.

• Shaw, the elections director in Bladen County, has left her job. Shaw, who was planning to retire at the end of the year, is taking vacation and sick leave until her retirement. “It has nothing to do with this investigation going on,” Shaw told The News & Observer in a phone interview.

An especially large number of mail-in ballot requests came from Village Oak Apartments at 303 Pecan Street in Bladenboro, election data show. Carli Brousseau cbrousseau@newsobserver.com

Were all the ballots returned?

A News & Observer analysis of data on mail-in ballots in the district found:

Across the 9th district, which stretches from Charlotte to Fayetteville along North Carolina’s southern border, 24 percent of the requested mail-in ballots were unreturned. In Robeson County, 64 percent of mail-in ballots requested did not make it back to elections officials. In Bladen County, the figure was 40 percent.

The unreturned ballots are disproportionately associated with minority voters. More than 40 percent of the ballots requested by African Americans and more than 60 percent of those requested by American Indians did not make it back to elections officials. For white voters, that figure was just 17 percent.

In Bladen County, the breakdown for African Americans and American Indians generally reflected the district-wide figures. But in Robeson County, 75 percent of the mail-in ballots requested by African Americans and 69 percent of the mail-in ballots requested by American Indians were listed as unreturned.

In other counties hard-hit by Hurricane Florence, as Bladen and Robeson were, the share of unreturned mail-in ballots was not as high. In Columbus County, 29 percent of the mail-in ballots requested were unreturned. In Pender County, the figure was 18 percent.

The analysis excluded data on voters who requested more than one ballot.

A “Dan McCready for Congress” campaign sign still stands along NC 131 near the Bladen County town of Tar Heel, N.C.. Carli Brousseau cbrousseau@newsobserver.com

What happens next?

• Republicans in North Carolina have said that there are not enough mail-in absentee votes to change the results of the election and that the board should certify the election and continue its investigation.

“Make no mistake, I support any efforts to investigate allegations of irregularities and/or voter fraud, as long as it is fair and focuses on all political parties. There is absolutely no public evidence that there are enough ballots in question to affect the outcome of this race,” Harris said in a tweet.

”The State Board of Elections should act immediately to certify the race while continuing to conduct their investigation. Anything else is a disservice to the people of the Ninth District,” Harris said in a tweet.

McCready said, in a tweet on Nov. 30, that he respected the board’s decision to delay certification “until a full investigation is completed of all credible allegations of voter fraud and irregularities. The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy. Any effort to rob a person of that right should be met with the full force of justice.”

The state board of elections has a range of options, from certifying the election results to ordering a new election, The Charlotte Observer reported. The board can order a new election even if the number of disputed ballots is not enough to change the result of the election. The board can call a new election if it determines “that the irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the result of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness,” The Charlotte Observer reported.

If the board calls for a new election, it would be a first for a North Carolina congressional race, Gerry Cohen told The Charlotte Observer. Cohen drafted election laws as special counsel to the North Carolina General Assembly for 37 years.

The House of Representatives could refuse to seat Harris, who has been taking part in new-member events.

“If there is what appears to be a very substantial question on the integrity of the election, clearly we would oppose Mr. Harris being seated until that is resolved,” Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat and the incoming House majority leader, told reporters at the Capitol, according to The Washington Post.

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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.