A congressional race in North Carolina shows the likeliest threats to the integrity of elections aren’t the ones GOP lawmakers address.
One early sign that something about McCrae Dowless wasn’t on the up-and-up came in November 2016.
With the race between North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory and Democrat Roy Cooper down to a razor-thin margin, Republicans filed claims of voter fraud with county boards of election around the state. The GOP was aiming to delegitimize Cooper’s lead and to legitimize years of effort to overhaul voting laws to make them more restrictive, claiming serious fraud.
In Bladen County, in the southeastern part of the state, Dowless, who had won a race for soil and water commissioner, alleged that “literally hundreds of fraudulent ballots” were cast in his race. When he was called before the North Carolina State Board of Elections to discuss his complaint, he was unable to answer specific questions about his allegations. More astonishingly, Dowless at one point deflected a question by invoking his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination—even though the board was hearing a complaint he himself had filed.
It was a portent. Today, Dowless stands accused of orchestrating a sweeping voter-fraud operation in Bladen County—allegedly to benefit a Republican candidate for U.S. House. The state board has refused to certify the results of the race pending an investigation, leaving the final makeup of the 116th Congress in doubt. Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, Republican lawmakers 100 miles north in Raleigh are close to passing a new voter-ID law. After years of searching for proof that voting fraud is rampant in the Old North State, there’s finally a persuasive case—and it’s a kind of fraud the new law is unlikely to stop.
The first public indication that all was not right in Bladen County came two weeks ago, when the North Carolina State Board of Elections decided not to certify the results of the closely watched Ninth Congressional District race, in which Republican Mark Harris defeated Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes. (Harris beat the incumbent, Robert Pittenger, a fellow Republican, in the primary.)Documents released by the NCSBE on Tuesday indicate that Dowless—who was a contractor for Harris’s campaign, hired through a political-consulting firm—requested almost 600 absentee ballots in Bladen County.
According to accounts given to reporters and in sworn affidavits, Dowless had a team of workers going around collecting absentee ballots from voters, which is a violation of state law. In some cases, the affidavits allege, these workers completed ballots for voters—also a violation of the law. Both Bladen and Robeson Counties also had an unusually high number of unreturned absentee ballots, which could indicate they were collected by someone but never turned in. It’s unclear the extent to which these workers were aware they were breaking the law. Harris’s campaign says he was unaware of any illegal activity. Both his campaign and the consulting firm, Red Dome, have received NCSBE subpoenas.
Dowless was hired to get the vote out, and by whatever means, he got results. More absentee votes came in by mail from Bladen County than any other county in the ninth district. It was also the only county in the district where Harris beat McCready in mail-in votes (Democratic campaigns tend to focus more on early and absentee votes), even though the district’s party registration leans Democratic.
The problem for Dowless is that North Carolina has an unusual degree of public transparency about absentee voting (created in part because of widespread absentee-ballot fraud in the 1940s), which made it possible to spot unusual patterns in ballot requests. Gerry Cohen, a longtime election lawyer in the state, flagged curious requests in March. Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College who runs an indispensable blog about North Carolina politics, crunched some of the numbers to show the unusual results.
It’s not clear at this point whether the alleged fraud could have swung the result of the congressional election, but given the close margin of the race, the large number of absentee ballots Dowless requested, and the high percentage of unreturned ballots, it is plausible. The NCSBE appears to be uncomfortable with the result, voting by a bipartisan 7–2 margin this week not to certify the election. The board is now investigating and will have an evidentiary hearing no later than December 21. The district attorney in Wake County, home to Raleigh, is also investigating.
At the extreme end of remedies, the NCSBE could even order a do-over election. That’s never happened in a congressional race in North Carolina before, though the board has occasionally ordered new elections in municipal races, to remedy either fraud or errors by election officials. The Charlotte Observer on Wednesday called for a new election. The U.S. House, which will be controlled by Democrats in the new Congress, could also refuse to seat Harris. Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the incoming majority leader, said Tuesday that Harris shouldn’t be seated until concerns about fraud are resolved.
Dowless is no stranger to legal scrutiny. He has been convicted of fraud, perjury, and passing bad checks; in one case, he was accused of forging insurance documents to collect a life-insurance policy on a former employee. Since entering politics, he’s frequently worked at getting the vote out for various candidates; in the 2016 primary, he worked for a candidate running against Harris and Pittenger. Although that candidate lost, he far outpaced both men in Bladen County. According to an affidavit obtained by WSOC, Dowless stood to make $40,000 if Harris won the general election. Dowless did not return a request for comment.
Bladen County has a reputation for lawlessness among North Carolina politicos, and there have been at least five election investigations in the county since 2010. In an interview with Spectrum News last week, Pittenger was asked about the fraud allegations. “There’s some pretty unsavory people out, particularly in Bladen County. And I didn’t have anything to do with them,” he said, grinning.
Gary Bartlett, who was executive director of the NCSBE from 1993 to 2013, told me the board had looked into possible fraud in Bladen County during his tenure, including scrutinizing Dowless.
“There have been two groups, and the most prominent one is the one that has been in the newspaper lately—he has always been at the forefront,” Barlett said. He said teams would target elderly, poor, and otherwise vulnerable voters who weren’t aware of the law. “They will request a mail ballot. Then they go and ask to help them vote the ballot. Then they will suggest to vote for someone, or they say, ‘We will turn it in for you, and you don’t have to worry about a stamp.’ Then they take the remainder of the ballot and mark it as they wish.”
Bartlett said he’d turned information about potential violations of the law over to the local district attorney, and that he didn’t believe the fraud had swayed the outcome of any elections during his tenure. The News & Observer in Raleigh reports state investigators are now investigating ballots in neighboring Robeson County, too. The board has previously found fraud in Pembroke, a town in Robeson County.
Election experts say in-person voter fraud—in which an individual arrives at the polls and votes as someone else, or as a duplicate—is extremely rare. It’s more common that poll workers commit fraud, or that there’s some sort of organized action like what’s alleged in Bladen County.
Nonetheless, Republicans have pushed hard for laws that require citizens to show a photo ID to vote, both nationally and in North Carolina. Critics say that such laws disproportionately affect groups that vote Democratic, including the poor, minorities, and young people, who are less likely to hold photo IDs.
In 2013, just after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated portions of the Voting Rights Act, the North Carolina General Assembly passed one of the strictest voting laws in the nation, which not only required photo ID but also curtailed early voting, among several other measures. The law was loosened slightly in 2015. In 2016, a federal appeals court deemed the law unconstitutional.
“In what comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times, the State’s very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race—specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise,” Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote.
But Republicans in the General Assembly placed a measure on the ballot this November asking voters to approve an amendment to the state constitution that would require photo ID to vote. Voters approved the measure, and now lawmakers are writing the law—doing so during the lame-duck session, when Republicans still hold a veto-proof supermajority in the legislature.
The bill is modeled heavily on a voter-ID law in South Carolina. In 2012, while serving on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, newly seated Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote a decision upholding that law.
Voting-rights advocates say the bill is an improvement over the 2013 and 2015 laws. To assuage concerns about access to photo IDs, it widens the range of valid IDs, allowing student IDs from some colleges and expired IDs in some cases. It also asks county boards of elections to issue photo IDs.
“It’s still a burden, but it probably won’t have a lot of impact,” Cohen said. “Any legitimate voter that’s prevented from voting is a bad thing, but on the scale, it’s not too bad.”
On Wednesday, amid the scrutiny of Bladen County, the state House added a provision to the bill that requires citizens to submit a photocopy of a photo ID or else to sign an affidavit saying they have a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining a photo ID when requesting an absentee vote. That provision might make schemes like the one alleged in Bladen County harder to execute, but it also might make it harder for legitimate absentee voters to cast a ballot. A version of the bill passed the Senate last week.
North Carolina Republicans say they want an investigation, but in the meantime, they are clamoring for the NCSBE to certify Harris’ election and send him to Washington. After years of Republicans insisting there’s rampant election fraud in North Carolina and accusing Democrats of indifference or complicity, there’s finally a case that looks like real, outcome-changing election fraud. It just so happens that it’s alleged to have benefited a Republican. Suddenly, the North Carolina GOP is less concerned about the effects of fraud.