Voter fraud may have changed the outcome of a congressional election in North Carolina. For a change, the fraud allegations are against the Republicans and, rather than centering on a voter ID issue, the problem deals with absentee ballots, a weak link in the electoral systems of many states.
The race in North Carolina’s ninth district was called for Mark Harris, a Republican running to succeed Robert Pittenger, the Republican incumbent who was defeated in the primary. Harris, a Charlotte pastor, led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes on Election night and McCready conceded the next day. Over the next few weeks, irregularities in the election have caused the North Carolina Board of Elections to delay certifying the election. On Nov. 26, the board, which is made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and one nonpartisan, voted unanimously to delay until an investigation had been completed. The race is still officially undecided.
The investigation centers on absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson Counties, two of the most rural counties of the district, and a staffer for the Harris campaign staffer who allegedly ran an operation that submitted hundreds of illegal ballots. Sworn affidavits and news reports allege that Leslie McCrae Dowless and other campaign workers would go to visit voters and have them fill out requests for absentee ballots. Mr. Dowless and others allegedly returned later to pick up the absentee ballots, which were sometimes unsealed, with the promise of submitting them.
Datesha Montgomery, a 27-year-old woman from Elizabethtown, N.C., said in sworn affidavit cited by ABC News that a woman “came by and asked for my absentee ballot” in early October.
“She states that [the woman] was collecting peoples [sic] ballots in the area. She had just come from another ladies [sic] house. I filled out two names on the ballot, Hakeem Brown for Sheriff and Vice Rozier for board of education. She stated the others were not important. I gave her the ballot and she said she would finish it herself. I signed the ballot and she left. It was not sealed up at any time,” Montgomery said in the affidavit.
Under North Carolina law, only the voter, the voter’s close relatives or legal guardian are allowed to drop off absentee ballots. Despite the law, at least five voters in addition to Montgomery have signed affidavits that present similar stories.
The case for fraud goes beyond voter testimony. There is also statistical evidence. The ninth district is made up of parts of eight counties. Michael Blitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, analyzed the absentee voting and found that Bladen County had a much higher share of absentee ballots than the other counties in the district. Seven percent of Bladen’s registered voters asked for absentee ballots compared with about three percent statewide.
Even though Bladen County Republicans requested only 19 percent of absentee ballots, Harris received 61 percent of the absentee mail vote there. What’s more, Bladen County was the only county in the district where Harris won the absentee mail vote. FiveThirtyEight noticed the same discrepancies in the Bladen returns.
Blitzer also pointed out that Bladen County had an abnormally high rate of unreturned ballots. Forty percent of absentee ballots mailed out were never returned. The next highest ghosting rate was only 27 percent. This could indicate that some of the ballots that were picked up were discarded rather than turned in.
If that weren’t enough, WSOC, a local television station, interviewed Ginger Eason, whose name appears as a witness on 28 absentee ballots. Eason said that Dowless paid her $75 to $100 per week to pick up absentee ballots. This would have been a violation of the law if the voters were not Eason’s relatives. WSOC also listed seven other people who were listed as witnesses on an unusual number of absentee ballots.
Leslie McCrae Dowless, who goes by his middle name, is a longtime political operative in Bladen County who has a criminal history. Dowless, who turned in 592 of the 1,341 absentee ballots in Bladen, was convicted of insurance fraud in 1992. He was also accused of tampering with absentee ballots in 2016. That year two voters accused his workers of paying them to request absentee ballots. In one case, the requested absentee ballots were never delivered and the voter tried to vote in person, only to be told that ballots for her and her family had already been turned in. In another case, a get-out-the-vote activist working for Dowless was accused of telling the voter who she had to vote for.
Candidates supported by Dowless typically do very well in Bladen County, especially with absentee ballots. The Charlotte Observer pointed out that Todd Johnson, who Dowless worked for in the 2016 Republican primary, won 98 percent of Bladen’s absentee vote despite finishing third overall. In this year’s primary, Harris did nearly as well with 96 percent. Harris defeated Pittenger by only 828 votes in the primary so it is possible that absentee ballot fraud may have affected the outcome of that election as well.
Dowless has not responded to calls from new organizations but did deny any wrongdoing to the Charlotte Observer.
At this point, a resolution to the Bladen County absentee scandal is uncertain. The US Attorney is conducting an investigation and the Board of Elections will hold a hearing on or before Dec. 21. The board could call for a new election with the same candidates, including Libertarian Jeff Scott, who won just under two percent of the vote. If the state certifies the original election results, the House may also refuse to seat Harris. In that case, an entirely new election with new primaries would be held.
While this one congressional district won’t decide the fate of the House, it underscores the depth of the blue wave that Republicans would probably have lost another seat in a district that hasn’t gone Democrat since 1963 if a shady staffer hadn’t harvested hundreds of illegal votes. It is very possible that when the dust clears the Democrats will have added another Republican scalp to their midterm trophies.
The Bladen County scandal also undercuts the Republican message about ballot security and voter ID laws. The fact that Republicans appear to have paid for absentee votes and possibly discarded ballots containing votes for the Democratic candidate makes a mockery of the party’s planks calling for election security and voter verification. Republican efforts have concentrated on voter ID laws, but absentee ballots typically don’t require verification of identity.