Meet The Ballot-Harvesting Felon At The Center Of A Still-Undecided North Carolina Race

A North Carolina man known for creative "electioneering" and alleged fraud is now at the center of a hotly contested House race in the state's Ninth District separated by just 905 votes, which state regulators have refused to certify, according to the New York Times

Elections regulators are poised to hold an evidentiary hearing this month. Investigators have already begun questioning witnesses about what Joshua Malcolm, who was named on Monday as the election board’s chairman, described last week as “claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities” with regard to absentee ballots in rural parts of the district. -NYT

At the center of those activities is L. McCrae Dowless Jr. - a felon and politico convicted of perjury and fraud in the early 1990s. Dowless - known for get-out-the-vote campaigns revolving around absentee ballots, was hired by a firm working for Republican candidate Mark Harris against Democrat Dan McCready, and was rumored to be in line for a $40,000 bonus if Harris won the election. 

At question is whether Dowless engaged in illegal "ballot harvesting" - a practice by which political operatives canvas neighborhoods and pick up unsubmitted absentee ballots from voters. 

State officials are particularly concerned that people working on behalf of Mr. Harris’s campaign picked up, or “harvested,” absentee ballots, a crime under North Carolina law. In one affidavit, a Bladen County resident, Emma Shipman, wrote that she had handed over her ballot to a woman who told her she was assigned to collect ballots in the district. Another voter wrote that she had handed over her incomplete ballot to a woman, who promised she would finish it. -NYT

One woman told news outlet WSOC that Dowless paid her to collect finished absentee ballots and deliver them to him, which she says he never told her was illegalThe practice has raised questions over whether ballots may have been improperly submitted for Harris - who leads McCready by 905 votes at present. Adding to the controversy is the fact that Bladen county - a largely rural area in the district, recorded the state's highest rate of absentee ballot requests at 7.5% of registered voters, compared with less than 3% in the majority of counties. 40% of them were never returned, while in nearby Robeson County, 62% were not returned. As the Times notes, no other county had a rate higher than 27%. 

Harris won 61 percent of submitted absentee ballots in Bladen county, despite the fact that Republicans only accounted for 19 percent of the ballots submitted. In other words, a lot of Democrats seemingly voted for the Republican candidate. 

And now, all eyes are on McCrae Dowless - who has both run for various public offices in North Carolina, and worked as an operative for several campaigns. 

in enlisting Mr. Dowless, who was hired as a contractor by Mr. Harris’s consultants, the Republican campaign had signed on a man with some political knowledge but a blemished personal history. 

He was deeply familiar with the mechanics of the get-out-the-vote efforts on which candidates rely: State records show that beginning in 2009, at least seven Democratic and Republican candidates paid him for work in local and state races, including campaigns for the Legislature, district attorney and county sheriff. Separately, campaign finance records in Mecklenburg County showed that Mr. Dowless worked for a City Council candidate in Charlotte, the state’s largest city. -NYT

"He was just a known figure," said Ken Waddell, a former Democratic State Representative who hired Dowless on a recommendation. "To me, it appeared like he just liked politics."

In 1991, the Fayetteville Observer reported that Dowless and his future wife capitalized on tragedy after one of his employees was killed in an automobile accident. Dowless backdated a six-figure life insurance policy on the man using a forged signature and listed himself as the primary beneficiary. He eventually served a short prison term - while state records show he has convictions for perjury and fraud, among other things.  

The elections board is set to hold an evidentiary hearing by December 21 - after which they can order a new election if they conclude that "irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness." Given the high rate of absentee ballots - and people claiming they were paid to collect them illegally, a new runoff is a distinct possibility, while Dowless doubtless has some questions to answer.