Board of Elections uncovers ‘unlawful’ absentee ballot scheme in 9th congressional district race

Several people gathered Monday outside the State Bar and called for a new election before the start of an evidentiary hearing about alleged absentee ballot fraud in the 9th congressional district. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

A political operative working for Republican U.S. Congressional candidate Mark Harris paid people to help him collect, fill out and turn in absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties leading up to last year’s midterm election, according to evidence gathered by the State Board of Elections.

Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach said Monday there was a “coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme” uncovered in those areas, which has delayed the certification of a couple races, including Harris’ for the 9th congressional district.

Allegations have swirled for months around Leslie McCrae Dowless, who was paid (and paid others) to illegally harvest absentee ballots, but the evidentiary hearing Monday is the first time the most shocking details have been released.

Dowless stared straight-faced ahead from the back of a room at the State Bar as a preview of evidence about his alleged operation flashed on two TV screens up front. His expression didn’t change when his former stepdaughter, Lisa Britt, testified about how he paid her to help with the absentee ballots and then tried to get her to plead the fifth at this hearing in a letter last week.

“I can tell you that I haven’t done anything wrong in the election, and McCrae Dowless has never told me to do anything wrong, and to my knowledge, he has never done anything wrong, but I am taking the 5th Amendment because I don’t have an attorney and I feel like you will try to trip me up,” the typed-letter stated. “I am taking the 5th.”

The allegation of obstruction was a surprise to most in the room, including Dowless’ attorney, Cynthia Adams Singletary. Dowless ignored questions about it from reporters following him out of the room during a lunch break.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Singletary said, adding that she was sure he didn’t give that letter to Britt.

McCrae Dowless (right of the man with the blond hair) watched an evidentiary hearing Monday alleging he pulled off an absentee ballot scheme in Bladen and Robeson counties last year. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Singletary maintained Dowless’ innocence despite the evidence presented during the first half of the day. She said she wasn’t sure before the hearing if Britt was going to testify. When asked if Dowless tried to stop anyone from testifying, she snapped, “hell no!”

Britt testified that she and others were paid somewhere between $150 and $175 per 50 absentee ballot registrations they collected and were later paid $125 per 50 actual absentee ballots they picked up, which changed in the last couple weeks before the election to a flat rate of $200 per week. They were paid in cash when they turned the ballots into Dowless at either his office or his home.

Britt said Dowless explained what she was supposed to do and that she thought they were helping people register to vote. Bladen County is a poor area, she added, so they were giving voters more opportunities to cast ballots.

She couldn’t recall how much money she was paid entirely for her work or how many people’s ballots she was personally involved in helping with.

“We dealt with a lot of people, so I’m not really sure how many people it was we registered to vote,” Britt testified.

Other things she testified about included Dowless instructing her to use the same color ink to sign as a witness as the voter’s signature and how they filled in some incomplete ballots where voters didn’t choose candidates for certain races. She also admitted to signing her mother’s name as a witness on some forms when she was told she had been a witness on too many ballots.

It wasn’t until Dowless “fussed” at her for putting upside-down stamps on ballot mail-in envelopes that she realized they were doing something wrong. He told her they didn’t want to raise any red flags for the Board of Elections to catch on.

“I guess one or two wouldn’t have mattered but if you had 10 or 15 come in like that, they’d think, ‘Now, hey, wait a minute, why are they all coming in that way?'” Britt said.

She also testified that they would never mail more than nine or 10 ballots at a time, and they would mail them from mailboxes closest to voters to prevent suspicion.

Britt expressed some sympathy for Harris, who she said she believed didn’t know about the absentee ballot scheme.

“I think Mr. Harris was completely clueless as to what was going on, as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

Harris was at the hearing. He wore a navy blue suit and lighter blue tie and his hand covered his mouth for much of the hearing. His Democratic opponent Dan McCready was not present.

Overall evidence presented by the Strach showed that at least 788 absentee ballot request forms in Bladen County were submitted by Dowless or his workers in Blade County for the general election. At least 231 of the same requests, but as many as 449, were submitted by Dowless or his workers in Robeson County.

The way the scheme operated was that Dowless’ workers obtained the absentee ballot request forms from voters then turned them back into him for payment. The request forms were photocopied and maintained at Dowless’ office and then delivered to the local Board of Elections by Dowless, according to the State Board.

The actual unsealed absentee ballots were also collected directly from voters, some with no witness signatures or with only one witness signature. Those ballots were kept at Dowless’ home or office, and he instructed people to falsely sign as witnesses and fill out votes on blank or incomplete forms.

Red Dome Consulting, hired by Harris, paid Dowless $131,375.57 between July 3, 2017 and Nov. 7, 2018. Strach said it’s not clear all of those payments were for the ballots regarding the 9th congressional district and it could include payments from other candidates.

The State Board was unable to confirm if any of the early vote totals were leaked, according to Strach.

The State Board, seated at the end of January, could decide this week whether or not to certify Harris’ race. The evidentiary hearing could take several days, and even if the race is certified, the U.S. House could launch its own investigation and refuse to seat Harris.

Bob Cordle, Chairman of the State Board, said if they decide to order a new election and not certify the race, it could be based on the number of fraudulent absentee ballots or the entirety of the improprieties that could taint the race and cast doubt on the fairness of it.

“Our voters must have trust in our process and believe their vote must be counted and believe elections must be fair,” Cordle said.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated as more information becomes available.

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