The North Carolina State Board of Elections on Wednesday released hundreds of pages of documents detailing allegations of ballot fraud in 2016 allegedly directed by a Republican operative now at the center of a probe into this year's 9th Congressional District elections.
Over more than 275 pages, investigators describe interviews and provide images of text message conversations indicating that Leslie McCrae Dowless was, they found, "paying certain individuals to solicit absentee request forms and to collect absentee ballots from Bladen County voters."
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The report also says Dowless "allegedly instructed his workers to 'push' votes for certain candidates while meeting with voters."
Among the candidates' names suggested on a "sample ballot" provided to a man and woman who investigators say worked for Dowless: Donald J. Trump and the then-incumbent Republican governor, Pat McCrory. Trump won the state by nearly 4 percentage points. McCrory lost narrowly to Democrat Roy Cooper, the current governor.
The findings were referred to the US Attorney's Office in December 2016. Dowless has not been charged in connection with the probe, but has now been named a "person of interest" by the same board in its ongoing investigation into the 2018 vote. The board also has refused to certify Republican Mark Harris as November's winner of the US House seat in the state's 9th District amid evidence of irregularities in the absentee ballot count and reports of a fraud scheme operating under Dowless' guidance.
The documents released on Wednesday were provided to various state and federal prosecutors last January in preparation for a meeting of the board, investigators and prosecutors on issues related to election irregularities ahead of the midterms and the 2016 investigation into alleged voter fraud that implicated Dowless.
Harris, who leads in the unofficial tally of the 2018 election by 905 votes, has admitted to personally hiring Dowless onto his campaign, but in an interview last week he denied knowledge of any wrongdoing by the operative.
Harris' opponent, Democrat Dan McCready, and state Democratic Party officials have called for a new election in the district. Though less outspoken, Republicans have largely conceded that a second vote will be necessary. A bill is in front of Cooper that would require any call for a new election to also provide for another primary, which would give Republicans a chance to defeat the politically damaged Harris before a rematch with McCready.
Dowless' attorney, Cynthia Adams Singletary, released a statement on Tuesday saying 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," she wrote.
Singletary did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations from 2016 and Dowless, the board revealed on Wednesday night, has refused to be interviewed as part of the state's 2018 investigation.
The 2016 documents provide vivid accounts from the duo claiming to have worked for Dowless in 2016. In sworn statements, they describe how Dowless spread out payments and instructed them to keep mum.
"He told us not to let anyone know that we were being paid based on how many req. form and ballots we got for him," the woman, Caitlyn Croom, said in a handwritten letter.
Also attached were photographs of an October 1 text message exchange from a phone used by Croom and the other person working for Dowless, Matthew Matthis. On the other end of one conversation is another man whose ballot they are offering to fill out.
"Yo, do u care who u vote for?," he's asked. "I got ur ballot in the mail. Who u want for president?"
The man responds: "I don't think it really makes a difference but (redacted) he will be the one to finally start the zombie apocalypse, lol."
The full range of evidence collected by investigators looking into the 2018 elections has not yet been made public by the State Board of Elections, which will hold an evidentiary hearing on January 11.
Harris recalled losing the 9th District primary in 2016, including a significant margin of absentee ballots in Bladen County, where Dowless lives and works, in an interview last week with WBTV in Charlotte.
He said that ahead of the 2018 race a local Republican official recommended that he work with Dowless, whom he claimed the official described as "a good ol' boy that knew Bladen County politics" and "did things right."
Harris met Dowless when he decided to run again, the candidate said, and Dowless talked about a two-step program to help voters apply for and submit absentee ballots.
Dowless "said he hired individuals that worked for him, who went out and canvassed door-to-door trying to encourage people to be involved and were they willing to fill out an absentee ballot request form," Harris said. The voters "would fill out the absentee ballot request form, and they would take it and would return it to the board of elections."
Then, since absentee ballots require two witness signatures, Dowless would send pairs of associates to "follow up with those people and offer their services ... if they need any assistance with their ballot," Harris said.
"I remember him saying specifically that they were not to take a ballot. They were not to touch a ballot," Harris told WBTV. "In fact, he used the illustration that I still recall, that 'I don't care if it's a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair or a walker, you cannot take her ballot. You can walk her to the mailbox, and put the ballot in the mailbox and raise the flag, but you don't take the ballot.'"
When asked if he had any knowledge that Dowless might be doing anything illegal, Harris replied, "No, absolutely not."