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Man at center of North Carolina election fraud probe also investigated by state after 2016 campaign

But Republicans failed to pursue criminal charges.

BLADENBORO, UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 5: Leslie McCrae Dowless sits in his kitchen in Bladenboro, NC. Credit: The Washington Post via Getty Images
BLADENBORO, UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 5: Leslie McCrae Dowless sits in his kitchen in Bladenboro, NC. Credit: The Washington Post via Getty Images

We’re still several weeks away from learning what, exactly, happened in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district.

The state’s board of elections postponed a hearing originally scheduled for this Friday until the second week of 2019, meaning the district’s congressional seat will remain vacant when the new Congress is sworn in on January 3.

Much of what we already know, though, centers around one man: Leslie McCrae Dowless, a local official in Bladen County. Dowless has been connected to Republican campaigns across the state for years, including Republican candidate Mark Harris, who ran for the district’s congressional seat in last month’s midterm elections.

Dowless is accused of hiring multiple people to illegally collect absentee ballots from across the district, and have them delivered to him rather than the local board of elections. Those allegations track with voting irregularities in at least two counties that sit within the 9th district — particularly in Bladen County.

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As the scope and scale of the potential fraud slowly came to light in recent weeks, so too did Dowless’ checkered past. By early December, it had become virtually impossible for the Republicans who hired him — including Harris — to argue they had no idea who they were working with. On Wednesday, the Associated Press slammed that door shut entirely.

Documents released by the state to the AP show that investigators in North Carolina pursued a criminal inquiry into Dowless and others for allegedly running a scheme to illegally steal voters’ absentee ballots — after the 2016 elections.

A lengthy investigation by state election officials into Dowless ended with a January 2018 referral to prosecutors for indictment. But rather than follow through on the recommendation for prosecution, the state government — led at the time by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory — declined to file suit.

As the AP notes, McCrory’s 2016 campaign actually joined a protest launched by Dowless himself into an alleged “absentee ballot mill” run by Democrats in Bladen County. Investigators found no basis for the complaint and threw it out, but that didn’t stop McCrory from leveling further baseless allegations of fraud in a dozen other counties against his Democratic opponent Roy Cooper, who ultimately won the gubernatorial election that year.