President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed without evidence that voter fraud plagued Republicans in the 2016 and 2018 elections. But so far, the biggest scandal over possible ballot tampering in the Trump era revolves around a GOP candidate’s victory that's now cast into doubt.
The North Carolina 9th Congressional District race appeared over when Democrat Dan McCready initially conceded to Republican Mark Harris, who apparently secured a 905-vote lead in the race. But on Nov. 27, the first signs of trouble surfaced when the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement unanimously refused to certify the results of the 9th District. The vice chair of the board — which is comprised of four Republicans, four Democrats, and one unaffiliated member — cited “unfortunate activities” as the basis for the board’s hesitance.
On Nov. 29, North Carolina Democratic Party attorney John Wallace sent a letter to the board, where he alleged that public records show “that serious irregularities and improprieties may have occurred,” according to the Charlotte Observer.
A SURGE IN ABSENTEE VOTERS
Specifically, the Democrats were concerned about absentee ballots in the largely rural Bladen County, where 7.5 percent of voters asked for absentee ballots, the Observer reported. That’s more than anywhere else in the state, and by a significant multiple. In most counties, less than 3 percent of voters typically request absentee ballots.
Those absentee ballots’ results were also surprising. McCready won a majority of absentee ballots in every county in the 9th District — except for Bladen. And even though just 19 percent of the accepted absentee ballots in that county were from registered Republicans, Harris won 61 percent of the absentee vote. To secure that margin, Harris would have had to win not only pretty much every unaffiliated voter but also some registered Democrats as well, according to an analysis by Catawba College professor J. Michael Bitzer.
ALLEGATIONS OF VOTER FRAUD
It seems unlikely that’s what happened here. Wallace’s letter included affidavits from two voters who alleged that a woman had shown up at their houses and taken their ballots. One voter, Datesha Montgomery, said she’d voted for just two candidates, in the races for sheriff and school board, and then handed the ballot over to the woman, who said that the other candidates were “not important.”
“I gave her the ballot, and she said she would finish it herself,” Datesha wrote in her affidavit. “I signed the ballot and she left. It was not sealed up at any time.”
That’s illegal under North Carolina law, which forbids third parties from turning in absentee ballots.
The investigation into what, exactly, happened in Bladen has now zeroed in on a political operative named Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., who’s known for grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts. Red Dome, a consulting firm retained by Harris, employed McCrae Dowless to help out with Harris’ campaign as a contractor. A woman named Ginger Easton — who's listed as having witnessed the signing of 28 accepted absentee ballots — told news outlet WSOC that she was paid $75 to $100 by McCrae a week to pick up completed absentee ballots.
McCrae Dowless denied wrongdoing to the Charlotte Observer but has otherwise remained largely unreachable to reporters. John Branch, an attorney for the Harris campaign, told the Washington Post that the campaign did not know about any alleged illegal activity by McCrae Dowless.
“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,” Branch said. “We are awaiting the outcome of that investigation like everybody else.”
CAN THEY GET A WITNESS?
North Carolina law requires that two people witness the signing of any absentee ballot. On Monday, WSOC and Popular Information both reported that many people listed as witnesses on accepted absentee ballots appear a striking number of times — one person, Woody Hester, witnessed 44. (Hester didn’t answer the door when WSOC tried to visit.) Another person, Lisa Britt, witnessed 42. While it’s not illegal to witness so many ballots, according to Popular Information, Bitzer told the outlet that the pattern was “remarkable.”
Britt, who’s been accused of illegally picking up absentee ballots, told BuzzFeed News that she had not collected any absentee ballots and had not done anything illegal, though she did say she had worked for McCrae Dowless since mid-summer. “Everybody thought they were helping Mr. Harris get elected,” said Britt, who is reportedly McCrae Dowless’ stepdaughter. “As far as going and telling anybody who to vote for, we weren’t.”
Another woman, Jessica Karen Dowless, told BuzzFeed News that she also worked for McCrae Dowless. (Her husband is reportedly related to McCrae Dowless.) Jessica Karen Dowless, who said that she worked six days a week tracking ballots, painted a bleak portrait of an operation of workers addicted to drugs and not entirely sure what they were doing or why. One employee, she told BuzzFeed News, “was so fucking high the other day she passed out at the fucking computer.”
Ultimately, the state elections board could decide the irregularities merit ordering a whole new election. The board will hold a hearing on Dec. 21 to examine the evidence of potential ballot tampering, Vox reported.
North Carolina Republicans are pretty adamantly opposed to the possibility: In a statement, North Carolina Republican Party chair Robin Hayes said, “Democrats are throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at the wall to try to steal an election. Mark Harris was elected to Congress. Mark Harris is going to Congress.”
Cover image: A resident of Mecklenburg County in Charlotte, North Carolina, casts her ballot on November 6, 2018. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)