DUBLIN, N.C. – In an aging, modest street strip in front of an online gambling hall here, a local agent by the name of Leslie McCrae Dowless headed his command center for Republican Mark Harris during the 9th Congressional District primary this spring.
Dowless was sitting at an office at the back of one of the empty storefronts of the band, where he oversaw a team of workers who were collecting voters' ballots and updating the campaign. from Harris on the numbers, according to Jeff Smith, owner of the building and former Friend without Dow.
Smith gave his main campaign story to investigators, who inquired as to whether Dowless's activities at the time and in general elections were contrary to North Carolina's electoral laws, which only allowed individual voters or parents to vote. designated to send a ballot.
Dowless is now at the center of an ongoing fraud investigation that has delayed the accreditation of Harris's victory and could prompt officials to call for a new election between him and Democrat Dan McCready, separated by 905 votes, according to reports. unofficial information.
Dowless, reported by the Charlotte Observer denied any wrongdoing, did not respond to several requests for comment.
The possibility of the November vote being canceled has provoked a series of partisan accusations. The case is politically burdensome for Republicans who, in North Carolina and across the country, have called for voter identity laws and other restrictions while warning, without any evidence, of the threat of widespread electoral fraud, particularly by illegal immigrants in the country.
Now, among the Democrats' calls for investigations into another type of electoral fraud – a fraud that would have benefited the GOP – the Republicans have remained largely silent on the accusations, accusing the country's electoral council on the contrary. State to attempt to steal the breed.
On Monday, the council issued a subpoena against the Harris campaign, according to campaign lawyer John Branch. The board is expected to release one soon for Red Dome Group, a GOP-based consulting firm based in the suburbs of Charlotte, which hired Dowless, according to two people close to the survey.
The electoral committee gathered information suggesting that senior campaigners may have been aware of Dowless's activities, according to the two people.
In statements to the Washington Post, Andy Yates, senior consultant at Harris and the subsidiary, confirmed that Dowless was hired by Red Dome to work on the campaign, but denied that officials were aware of any illegal activity.
The campaign "always believed that he was working within the confines of North Carolina law," Branch said. "The campaign now knows that the state election council is conducting an investigation and the media has revealed that Mr. Dowless was part of this investigation. We are waiting for the outcome of this investigation, like everyone else. "
Yates said that Harris, a pastor in Charlotte's suburbs, "was aware of Red Dome's relationship with Mr. Dowless and that he believed like me that Mr. Dowless was acting within the law." Yates said Dowless had assured him that he was not. illegally collect ballots.
Wayne Goodwin, chairman of the Democratic Party, said Monday that the new law on the electoral identity of the legislature would do nothing to put an end to the alleged acts in Bladen County. He added that the Republicans had repeatedly ignored absenteeism fraud and that, in the face of new allegations, they had "slipped away, both here and nationally."
Some Republicans argued that irregularities in absentee voting in the 9th district were not widespread enough to make a difference in the outcome and called on the council to certify Harris's victory.
In the absence of this, "hundreds of thousands of legal voters would be deprived of the right to vote and 750,000 people would be denied representation in Congress," said Dallas Woodhouse, GOP Executive Director of the GOP. # 39; State.
Two officials close to the investigation said that the number of mail ballots sent by mail that have been diverted remains to be determined.
Investigators from the bipartisan electoral committee, who voted unanimously last week to delay certification of the race, identified hundreds of potential witnesses to question, including many voters whose ballots by correspondence have never been returned according to the investigators. This suggests the possibility of an investigation of several weeks and an uncertain start date for the next congressman of the 9th district.
Josh Lawson, the council's general counsel, declined to comment on the investigation, saying it was ongoing.
Meanwhile, Wake County District Attorney, Lorrin Freeman (D), told The Post on Monday that his Raleigh office and the State Investigation Bureau were also pursuing criminal investigations into irregularities in the state. postal ballots.
"We are not yet on the verge of having connected all the points," said Freeman, adding, "Any investigation into these voting irregularities will certainly include people who may know about and be involved."
Election officials in the state said they were working with the FBI and the office of Robert Higdon, an American lawyer in the Eastern District of North Carolina. Higdon's office did not respond to requests for comment.
John, Harris's 28-year-old son, is an assistant prosecutor at the Higdon office in the United States, according to the North Carolina Bar.
The state election investigation commission is looking for irregularities in the postal vote at the general election of the 9th district – most in Bladen County, a rural area located about 20 km south of Fayetteville, where the largest employer is a Smithfield Foods pork processing plant. bought by a Chinese conglomerate in 2013.
An unusually high number of postal ballots was requested in the county – and an unusually large number of these requested ballots have never been returned, according to state registers.
A disproportionate number of undelivered ballots were sent to colored voters, who tend to vote Democrats. Nearly 55% of the ballots sent to Native American voters and 36% to African-American voters were not returned, while the rate of no return from white voters in the district was only 18% , according to the state registers.
In a subsidized apartment complex in Bladenboro, called Village Oak, half a dozen voters polled Sunday by The Post said they were approached in the fall by a woman who had asked them to hand over their postal ballots. Two other voters from other parts of the county told The Post about similar stories.
"I've had it for about four days," said 27-year-old Datesha Montgomery, who lives in a subsidized complex in Elizabethtown called Twisted Hickory. "And then she came forward and asked if she could get my ballot. I still had not filled it. I stood on the porch and I filled it. I noticed two names and she told me that the rest was not important and that she would fill it herself. "
Later, Montgomery said, Democratic activists had warned her about rumors of fraud, so she canceled her postal ballot and voted in person.
This fall, election officials in the state were so alarmed by the increase in the number of ballot applications from Bladen County that they sent a leaflet in October to all voters in the 9th district. asking not to give their ballot to others.
"At one point, 12% of Bladen's voters asked for mail-order votes," said a senior official familiar with the investigation who requested anonymity due to the continuing investigation. "You know, it's ridiculously high in percentage. And so, once we saw that, we immediately knew, agree, either, or they became really enthusiastic about the prospect of voting by mail or we have a huge effort going on. "
Investigators from the state election office have been talking to witnesses who associate Dowless with irregularities, according to the two people close to the investigation.
Dowless, 62, vice-president of the Soil and Water Conservation District of Bladen, has a criminal record. The court records show that he was convicted of fraud, perjury, and having a bad check in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
It was first examined by the state election council in 2016, when officials began investigating similar voting irregularities, which led to a public hearing.
That year, in the first 9th district election, Dowless was on the payroll of Todd Johnson, a Union County insurance salesman who also won a curious number of postal ballots in Bladen County. : 211, against four for Harris, who was also a candidate that year, and only one for the incumbent, Rep. Robert Pittenger (R), Records Show. Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.
The state's state election office has sent the case back to US attorneys and Wake County prosecutors, who continue to investigate, officials said.
Yates, Harris's consultant, said Dowless was hired by the election campaign this year to contact the absent voters and urge them to vote for Harris on their postal ballots.
Prior to the May primaries, Dowless had set up his business in an empty storefront that Smith had licensed to use. In a nearby office, Smith said he had been there on a regular basis and had a good view of how Dowless worked.
He added that Dowless had told him that his team had a dozen workers – many of whom were seen at the office – who moved from one sector to another, knocking on the door of the voters and offering them forms request for a vote.
Once the mail ballots were sent to voters, Dowless used public lists of ballot recipients and sent his team to retrieve them and promise to return them, Smith said.
"He reported every day to the campaign" We have 50 today "or" We have made 60 today, "said Smith, who has scrambled with Dowless after the this year, while supporting different sheriff candidates.
Campaign consultant Yates confirmed that another Red Dome contractor had provided Dowless with electronic lists of voters to whom ballots had been mailed.
The only purpose, he said, was to allow Dowless to follow up with these voters to encourage them to vote for Harris.
"To be clear, I've asked Mr. Dowless on a number of occasions that neither he nor anyone working with him or volunteering with him would be able to collect ballots," Yates said. , adding that he knew that Dowless or his staff were receiving ballots, he broke ties with the operator.
Smith said that in the primary, Dowless concentrated in particular on three constituencies in Bladen County: Bladenboro 1, Bladenboro 2 and Bethel, places where the number of votes sent by mail was high, according to the records. of the state.
Smith said he had never seen Dowless destroy a ballot.
Yates stated that Dowless was calling him regularly to keep him informed of the number of correspondence requests he had received but was not discussing the number of postal votes he had made for Harris.
In the spring primary, Harris beat outgoing President Pittenger by less than 1,000 votes, thanks in part to his 96% victory over postal ballots mailed to Bladen County.
Smith stated that it was after the primary that Dowless and he were arguing. Dowless moved into his office after Smith learned he was participating in Sheriff James McVicker's re-election campaign (right), Smith said.
Smith, 48, who owns an online gambling hall in front of his business in Dublin, has been accused of running an illegal gambling operation after McVicker's office broke into the show earlier this year. He disputes the allegations, claiming that his business is legal.
Smith said Dowless boasted of its ability to deliver up to 900 postal ballots in Bladen County. He stated that he spoke with enthusiasm of expanding his operation beyond Bladen as part of his work for Harris in the 9th district, which extends over more than 160 km from Charlotte to the Fayetteville area to the east.
Smith said that Dowless also spoke about the management of mail-order programs for several candidates. The campaign records show that he was paid this year by Pete Givens (R), failed candidate at Charlotte City Council, as well as by McVicker.
Smith was in the middle of an interview with The Post on Saturday when an investigator from the State Board of Elections called him. In front of a reporter, he repeated the story to the investigator from the beginning.
During the primary and general elections, a large number of postal ballots were returned to a single street in Bladenboro, according to state registers – Pecan Street, where are the Village Oak Apartments, a housing development social built around a giant oak tree. tree, are located.
In the spring, 60 ballots for the Republican primary were sent from this chamber on March 19, including 23 to Village Oak. All 23 were returned to the board the same day – March 26, records show.
Seven residents of Village Oak interviewed on Sunday reported attending the operation in action. Jeneva Legions, 30, who works in the Family Dollar store on the road, said several women went to her apartment in October, just after her mail ballot had arrived in the mail.
Legions said one of the women asked her to fill in her name, social security number and signature. When that woman came back, "she just said," I'm going to take it, "and I gave it to her." The ballot was not sealed, Legions said. Legions said that she did not remember having filled the ballot but that she would have voted for a democratic ballot. State registries show that his postal ballot has never been returned to county election officials.
When asked why she had submitted the ballot, Legions said, "You know, I think, she's with, you know, who's voting. So I think she's coming to get my ballot. "
Beverly Tyler, 45, also a resident of Village Oak, said that a woman had also addressed her to ask her for her mail ballot. Tyler recounted that she remembered seeing a truck parked in front of her door and bearing the Mark Harris logo. Tyler, who is unemployed and seeking disability benefits for a back injury, said he also returned his ballot. She said that she does not remember who she voted for. His ballot was given to the county, the archives show.
"I did not know what was going on," she said, to explain why she had returned her ballot. "I thought everything was fine."
Stacy Holcomb, 57, another disabled resident following a knee injury described about the same thing – although he said the woman had gone twice, all of a sudden. first to invite him / her to complete a ballot request form and then, once the ballot has arrived. the mail, to retrieve it.
"I filled it and gave it to him," he says. Holcomb stated that he remembered having sealed the ballot before handing it to him. He said that he does not remember who he voted for. His ballot was returned.
All voters described the woman as young with long, straight blond hair. The woman sometimes stays with her mother in the Oak Village complex, they said.
When the post office knocked on the door of this apartment on Sunday, a woman wearing her description came to the door.
"I have nothing to say," she said, two toddlers visible behind her, before closing the door.
Alice Crites, Joe Fox and Reuben Fischer-Baum in Washington and Justin Kase Conder in Dublin, Elizabethtown and Bladenboro contributed to this report.