Officials reveal new nefarious details in the apparent scheme to steal a North Carolina election for the GOP

Officials reveal new nefarious details in the apparent scheme to steal a North Carolina election for the GOP
Election '18

On Wednesday, the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement released a 278-page report detailing the 2016 primary election work of Leslie McCrae Dowless, Jr., the Bladen County Soil and Water Conversation District vice chairman and political operative at the heart of the investigation into suspected absentee ballot fraud in Bladen and Robeson Counties on behalf of GOP candidate Mark Harris in North Carlina's 9th Congressional District.

The report, which has now been referred to prosecutors as part of multiple criminal investigations, alleges that Dowless did in the 2016 election what witnesses have been telling reporters for weeks he did in 2018: paid people to go door to door collecting people's absentee ballots and illegally delivering them to the political campaign that employed him — in this case, another GOP congressional candidate, Todd Johnson, who lost to incumbent Robert Pittenger but won an eye-popping 98 percent of the absentee mail-in vote in Bladen County.

But the report also reveals lurid new details of the extent of Dowless' operation.

For instance, it describes how Dowless paid two ballot harvesters, Caitlyn Croom and Matthew Matthis, a $225 fee for the illegal absentee ballot harvesting — with half awarded for delivering him the completed ballot request forms, and the other half upon delivery of the ballots themselves. They reportedly accepted the job because they were desperate for money, one of them texting a friend, "Only way I get paid is getting people to do this junk."

It also says Dowless provided Matthis with a "sample ballot" showing candidates Dowless wanted them to push people to vote for before collecting their ballots, including President Donald Trump, then-Gov. Pat McCrory, and several judicial and county candidates including Dowless himself.

Perhaps most damning of all, the report details how Dowless allegedly "attempted to obstruct the ensuing NCSBE investigation into [voter] complaints by warning Matthis and Croom that investigators were attempting to locate them ... and coaching them as to what they should say if contacted."

Harris defeated Democrat Dan McCready in the 2018 congressional race by a knife-edge margin of 905 votes, which is fewer than the total number of disputed and potentially destroyed ballots. There are also suspicions of fraud in the primary, where Harris won out over Pittenger by just 828 votes. The Board of Elections has refused to certify his win as a result of the irregularities, and may order a new election.

If these allegations are confirmed, it would be damning for Harris, who sought to recruit Dowless for his campaign after seeing the absentee ballot results he produced for his primary opponent in 2016, despite being warned his tactics were questionable. It would also be damning for the Bladen County Republican Party, which contributed money to Dowless' "get out the vote" efforts.

An attorney for Dowless denied all wrongdoing in a statement to the News & Observer: "Mr. Dowless is a highly respected member of our community who is routinely sought after for his campaign expertise. He has not violated any state or federal campaign laws and current ongoing investigations will prove the same. All speculation is premature and wholly unwarranted."

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