Ballots may have been stolen or destroyed in disputed N.C. House race

New election looks likelier in unsettled race as accounts surface that 1,000 ballots may have been destroyed

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published December 28, 2018 6:00AM (EST)

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

North Carolina’s scandal-plagued 9th congressional district seat is expected to remain empty when the new Congress is sworn in next week after a state investigation turned up more evidence of electoral fraud in the race.

North Carolina’s bipartisan elections board refused to certify the race, in which Republican Mark Harris led Democrat Dan McCready by about 900 votes, after evidence emerged that an operative hired by the Harris campaign collected, tampered with or even destroyed ballots in rural parts of the district.

The state may call a new election if investigators determine that there is enough evidence to suggest the results may be in doubt. The number of ballots allegedly tampered with do not need to exceed the margin between Harris and McCready for a new election to be called.

According to WSOC’s Joe Bruno, investigators have obtained sworn affidavits that multiple voters submitted their absentee ballots to someone who came to their home and promised to deliver the ballots. It is illegal for anyone to possess another voter’s ballot, which is bad enough. Bruno soon discovered that none of these voters had their ballots counted.

The investigation is focused on two rural North Carolina counties -- Bladen and Robeson -- where an unusually high number of absentee-by-mail ballots were requested but not submitted. Two women have since come forward to say they were paid to collect the ballots by Republican operative Leslie McCrae Dowless, an ex-convict who served time for fraud. A voter who spoke with WSOC also identified a third woman who came to her home and offered to collect her ballot. The woman was later identified as Dowless’ stepdaughter Lisa Britt, BuzzFeed News reported.

Dowless was paid by the Harris campaign through a firm called Red Dome, founded by top Harris strategist Andy Yates. According to a financial statement, the campaign still owes the firm $34,000 for absentee ballot work.

While it’s unclear what happened with the ballots, the numbers show that Dowless’ candidates have outperformed logical statistics in the past.

Prior to Harris' apparent victory over McCready, Harris received 437 of 456 absentee-by-mail votes during his race against incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger in the Republican primary earlier in 2018. But in 2016, when Dowless worked for Republican Todd Johnson in his primary bid against both Pittenger and Harris, it was Johnson who got 98 percent of all the absentee votes in the county.

Dowless came to the attention of investigators after the 2016 race but the probe has been ongoing ever since.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman told The News & Observer that her office has had an active criminal investigation into “potential voting irregularities” in Bladen since January, long before the election, after a local prosecutor who is looking into the case forwarded it to her because "aspects of the fraud are alleged to have occurred in Raleigh.”

Freeman previously told CNN that more than 1,000 absentee ballots may have been destroyed in the 2018 operation.

According to WSOC, state officials sought criminal charges against Dowless in 2016 after his work on the Johnson campaign. A 300-page report obtained by the station included multiple sworn statements that Dowless paid people to collect ballots and bring them to him. The report also says Dowless tried to obstruct the investigation into the alleged fraud by coaching his workers on what to tell investigators.

That investigation is apparently ongoing. The state elections board has asked for Dowless to be interviewed but he has declined to speak with investigators.

State Republicans have increasingly sounded more open to a new election, though Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed a bill that would have allowed the party to hold a new primary election to potentially replace Harris as the nominee.

The state elections board will hold its next hearing to present evidence and determine how to proceed in the 9th district race on Jan. 11, more than a week after the new Congress is sworn in.

By Igor Derysh

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

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