North Carolina Republican owes $34K for absentee ballots that triggered fraud probe

GOP candidate Mark Harris reportedly still owes money to firm that may have illegally harvested absentee ballots

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published December 7, 2018 7:00PM (EST)

Mark Harris (AP Photo)
Mark Harris (AP Photo)

Federal Election Commission records show that Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris owes more than $34,000 to a firm that employed an operative who is said to have paid workers to illegally collect absentee ballots in the North Carolina U.S. House race currently under investigation for fraud.

The New York Times reported that Harris’ campaign said in an FEC filing that it owes $34,310 for  “reimbursement payment for Bladen absentee, early voting poll workers; reimbursement door to door.” The money is owed to the Red Dome Group, a political consulting firm founded by top Harris adviser Andy Yates.

The firm employed Leslie McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County operative accused of illegally collecting absentee ballots and possibly destroying opposing votes to help Republican candidates.

Harris received more than 60 percent of the absentee-by-mail vote in Bladen County, the only county where he won the absentee-by-mail vote. Harris led the final count by just over 900 votes over Democrat Dan McCready, but the state elections board has voted not to certify the results and launched an investigation into irregularities in the county, as well as nearby Robeson County.

In the Republican primary earlier this year, Harris received 437 of 456 absentee-by-mail votes in his winning campaign against incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger. When Dowless worked for Republican Todd Johnson in an earlier primary campaign against both Harris and Pittenger in 2016, it was Johnson who received 98 percent of all absentee-by-mail votes in the county.

“During the 2016 primary, I met with McCrae Dowless but quickly ended the meeting over personal concerns with his proposal,” Pittenger told the New York Times. “We didn’t talk long enough for me to gather detailed information — I just knew I didn’t want to be involved with him. Dowless’ efforts were widely known and we did share our concerns with several people.”

Two women have come forward to say Dowless paid them to illegally collect absentee ballots in his race against Harris. Just eight people signed off as witnesses on more than 150 of the ballots, including three who signed off on more than 40 ballots each. A sworn statement received by investigators said that a witness overheard that Dowless was to be paid $40,000 in cash if Harris won.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said that more than 1,000 absentee ballots may have been destroyed in the operation.

On Thursday, McCready announced he was withdrawing his concession amid calls for a new election in the race.

“I didn’t serve overseas in the Marine Corps just to come back home and watch politicians and career criminals attack our democracy,” he said in a video posted to Twitter. “That’s why today I withdraw my concession to Mark Harris.”

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, conceded Thursday that if the elections board “can state there was a substantial likelihood that the race could have been altered, then we would not oppose a new election.”

Under state law, the elections board can call for a new election if it determines that “irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.”

Even admitting that a new election may be needed is a major concession from the Republican Party, which has either been silent on the issue or has suggested the fraud charges were a partisan plot to overturn the election results. After Woodhouse made the comment, Robin Hayes, the chairman of the state Republican Party, clarified that they don’t support a new election.

“We are saying that we want the investigation to be completed,” Hayes told the Times. “At this point in the process, based on what we know, we think that Mark Harris has fairly and legitimately won the race,” but “if the facts and the numbers support calling for another election, then we would support it.”

Outside of party officials, lawmakers have been mum on the allegations and have instead turned to passing a new voter ID law. The legislature is finalizing a bill that would implement a photo ID requirement approved by voters in November, which includes an ID requirement for people who request mail-in ballots.

Former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory used the absentee ballot issue in Bladen County to call for making it harder for everyone to vote by banning all absentee ballots for non-military voters.

State Rep. David Lewis has also filed a bill that would give Republicans control over every county’s election board in election years.

Meanwhile in Congress, prospective House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that Harris may not be seated if the issue is not resolved by the state.

“The House still retains the right to decide who is seated,” Pelosi said. “Any member-elect can object to the seating of, the swearing in of another member-elect, and we’ll see how that goes.”

“We’re all in close touch on that because this is bigger than that one seat, this is about undermining the integrity of our elections,” she added. “And what was done there is so remarkable, that person — those entities got away with that, even to the detriment of the Republicans in the primary.”

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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