North Carolina GOP pushes law to take over elections amid fraud investigation in House race

With the race in North Carolina's 9th district still unsettled amid fraud charges, GOP tries to grab more power

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published December 6, 2018 6:00AM (EST)

Dan McCready; Mark Harris (AP/Chuck Burton)
Dan McCready; Mark Harris (AP/Chuck Burton)

North Carolina Republicans are trying to push through a bill that would give them control over every county’s election board in election years.

State Rep. David Lewis, a Republican who chairs the elections committee, introduced a bill Monday amid an ongoing fraud investigation into the U.S. House race in North Carolina’s 9th district.

The bill would require every county’s election board to be chaired by a member of the party with the highest number of registered voters in odd-numbered years, and by a member of the party with the second-highest number of registered voters in even-numbered years.

Since North Carolina has more registered Democrats than Republicans -- and since elections occur in even-numbered years -- Republicans would be in charge of every election board in every election year.

The move comes two years after the state’s Republicans voted to limit the power of incoming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Among the moves the party made that year was create a bipartisan elections board to limit Cooper’s role in overseeing elections.

That board struck down by a court, and in a strange twist, its last move was to stop the certification of the results in North Carolina’s 9th district, where Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by just over 900 votes.

The nine-member board voted unanimously not to certify results in the race, citing absentee ballot irregularities. It was later reported that had Harris received 61 percent of the vote in Bladen County, the only county in the district where he received more absentee-by-mail votes than McCready.

"In Bladen County, 61% of the accepted absentee-by-mail ballots went Republican -- the only county to do so; meaning that along with the almost 20% of loyal registered Republicans who voted that method, Harris would have also received almost all the registered unaffiliated voters and/or some Democratic registered voters to make it to 62% of the vote,” wrote Catawba College professor and election expert Michael Bitzer.

Since the early reports, the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has received multiple sworn statements from voters in rural Bladen County saying that people came to their door to collect their absentee ballots. It is illegal in North Carolina to take someone else’s ballot, even if you turn it in.

The Charlotte Observer reported that the operative at the heart of the “irregularities” is Leslie McCrae Dowless, a former convicted felon who served time for fraud, and was hired by the Harris campaign through a firm called Red Dome, which was founded by Andy Yates, Harris’ top strategist. The firm was paid at least $428,000 by the Harris campaign.

Two affidavits obtained by WSOC reference Dowless, with one witness saying he overheard another person say Dowless would get $40,000 if Harris won. Another affidavit said Dowless told the witness he was doing “absentee” work for Harris.

Two women have since come forward to say they were paid by Dowless to collect absentee ballots.

Dowless appears to be at the center of the fraud. Prior to the race against McCready, Harris received 437 of 456 absentee-by-mail votes in his primary victory over incumbent Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger.

In 2016, Dowless worked for Todd Johnson, who ran against both Harris and Pittenger in the primary. That year, Johnson received 98 percent of all absentee-by-mail votes in Bladen County.

In Harris' race against McCready, just eight people signed off as witnesses on dozens of ballots, each one signing at least 10. At least three people signed as witnesses on more than 40 ballots each.

While it has become abundantly clear that Dowless played a central role in what appears to be an effort to steal votes for Harris, what happens next is uncertain.

There were more than 3,400 unreturned ballots in Bladen County and nearby Robeson County.

An evidentiary hearing is scheduled on or before Dec. 21. If the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement determines that there was substantial fraud, as there appears to be, it could order a new election, leaving one House seat unfilled in the new Congress for the moment.

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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