Although the 2018 midterms took place ten months ago, one district in the country has gone without an elected congressperson since the new Congress convened in January. On Tuesday, voters of North Carolina’s ninth district will head back to the polls to elect a representative after months of unraveling electoral chicanery.
The district, which extends southeast from the Charlotte suburbs along the state’s border with South Carolina, held an election last November, just like everyone else. It was a close one: Republican Mark Harris, a far-right candidate who defeated Republican incumbent Robert Pittenger in a primary challenge in the spring, defeated Democrat Dan McCready, a then 35-year-old U.S. Marines veteran, by 905 votes out of more than 282,000 cast.
In the weeks that followed, though, state officials uncovered a number of peculiar patterns among mail-in ballots: In all but one of the district’s counties, McCready won handily among these absentee voters, by 16 points. But in Bladen County, he lost by a whopping 24 points. Journalists discovered that the same names appeared on many of these absentee ballots as “witnesses,” and listed the same one-bedroom apartment as their address.
In other words, either a small group of benevolent democracy enthusiasts rented a place together and then traveled all over Bladen County to help strangers vote—or someone, somewhere was cheating. In late November, the North Carolina State Board of Elections voted to delay certification of the result until it could figure out what, exactly, had gone awry here.
The answer, it turned out, involved one Leslie McRae Dowless Jr., a longtime fixture of Bladen County politics who worked as a contractor for Mark Harris’s campaign. And Dowless, it turned out, paid a team to go door-to-door in mostly rural areas, collect unfinished absentee ballots from unsuspecting voters, and bring them to him for completion. In a series of sworn affidavits, witnesses stated that Dowless described himself as “doing absentee” for Harris, and bragged that he was being paid in cash.
It appears that Dowless ran versions of this grift in previous contests, too. Since 2010, officials received at least a half-dozen complaints about his shady practices in the region, according to the AP. In the 2016 GOP primary, the candidate for whom Dowless worked won 98 percent of Bladen County absentee-by-mail votes, as documented by WSOC-TV reporter Joe Bruno. Two years later, when Harris won the 2018 primary, he took home 96 percent of absentee-by-mail votes in—where else?—Bladen County. (In retrospect, it is good for democracy that officials eventually uncovered Dowless’s operation, but kind of embarrassing that it took them this long to do it.)
The Board of Elections’ efforts to look into all this were complicated by the fact that in December, a court order dissolved it as part of a separate legal battle over the Board’s composition and jurisdiction. North Carolina’s governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, wasn’t able to convene a new board until late January. In the meantime, the race entered a weird state of political limbo. Harris argued that he should be allowed to serve in Congress pending the investigation’s results, and sued to compel certification in January. A state court judge, however, ruled that a hypothetical future Board, not a court, would be “in the best position to weigh the legal and factual issues” of the case.
When that new Board finally held a hearing in February, state officials characterized Dowless’s scheme as a “coordinated, unlawful, and substantially-resourced” one. It apparently worked by getting voters to request absentee ballots, and then attempting to harvest and tamper with those ballots prior to their completion by the actual voter. According to the Charlotte Observer, the Harris campaign paid Dowless, through a consulting firm called the Red Dome Group, $4 per absentee ballot request in the primary and $5 per absentee ballot request in the general.
In all, the Red Dome Group paid Dowless $131,375, the Observer says; all but around $18,000 of that sum related to his work for Harris. Red Dome Group owner Andy Yates admitted that he didn’t perform a background check on Dowless, which would have revealed a prior felony conviction for fraud, and failed to use Dowless’s full name when he ran a cursory Google search. (Dowless often goes by his middle name, McRae.)
At the time, Dowless assured skeptics that his employees didn’t physically handle ballots—a felony in North Carolina. But his stepdaughter, Lisa Britt, testified under oath that she indeed collected and filled in ballots at his direction, and that he increased her pay at one point because, as she sagely observed, “A lot of people don’t want to give you their absentee ballot.” Britt also revealed that Dowless, in an incredible display of electioneering chutzpah, urged her before her testimony to state only that Dowless had never asked her to do anything illegal, and otherwise to plead the Fifth. Dowless himself declined to testify, but this bit of casual tampering, presumably, did not help his case.
A critical unresolved question is whether Mark Harris knew what Dowless was doing on his behalf. The circumstantial evidence, at least, is not encouraging: Harris’s son, a federal prosecutor, warned his father in a series of e-mails about statistical oddities in previous elections in which Dowless was involved. In one message, the younger Harris even included a citation to the North Carolina statute that prohibits anyone from taking possession of another’s absentee ballot.
In any event, Harris’s knowledge of cheating is irrelevant to whether he benefited from it. As the hearing dragged on, an emotional Harris shocked observers when he, too, called for a new election, effectively ending the inquiry before the extent of his knowledge was ever established. In an interview on Rigging North Carolina, a recent podcast series covering the scandal, longtime Democratic Party attorney Marc Elias speculated that Harris’s abrupt reversal may have been motivated by a desire to avoid incriminating himself or lying under oath.
At the hearing’s conclusion, the State Board of Elections accepted Harris’s new-election suggestion by a unanimous decision. A week later, Dowless and several co-conspirators were arrested on charges of conspiracy and illegal ballot handling. In July, prosecutors brought obstruction-of-justice and perjury charges against Dowless, too. A separate Department of Justice investigation into the matter remains ongoing.
Harris declined to seek the Republican nomination this time around, citing ongoing health issues. McCready, however, is running again for the seat he thought he’d lost. This time, his opponent is Dan Bishop, a state legislator most famous for spearheading H.B. 2, better known as North Carolina’s “bathroom bill.” That law barred transgender individuals in government buildings from using the restrooms of the gender with which they identify; the legislature repealed it in March 2017 after a national backlash that culminated with the NCAA’s decision to pull scheduled March Madness games from the state in protest.
As the Charlotte Observer reported last October, before both the 2018 midterms and Bishop’s congressional candidacy, he was also notable for bragging about investing in Gab, an alternative social-media network popular with white supremacists and neo-Nazis. (“I’m about done with SF thought police tech giants’ Big Brother routine,” he wrote on, of all places, Facebook. “Free markets are the answer to many kinds of tyranny.”) Bishop posted proudly about his investment with Gab in August 2017, less than a week after white supremacists and neo-Nazis murdered a counter-protester in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In July, a McCready campaign internal poll showed the two candidates tied at 46 percent. A more recent poll shows McCready holding a slight 46-42 lead over Bishop—about equal to the 4.15-point margin of error. But the fact that this race is competitive at all is encouraging for Democrats in North Carolina. No Democrat has represented the ninth district since 1963, thanks in part to the Republican Party’s efforts to gerrymander the state’s congressional districts to ensure a permanent partisan advantage. They have not been shy about this goal, either. “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats,” said state representative Dave Lewis during a hearing in 2016, “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.” If McCready were to win, in other words, he’d do so in spite of a deck stacked heavily against him.
Future elections in North Carolina might not be such uphill battles for Democrats like McCready, either. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court’s five-member conservative majority rejected a challenge to the state’s congressional districts, concluding that the line-drawing process is a political question beyond the ken of the federal judiciary. It noted, however, that state courts were free to decide differently.
Sure enough, earlier this week, a three-judge panel in North Carolina stuck down the state’s legislative district map, concluding in a sweeping 357-page opinion that the advantage it conferred on Republicans violated the North Carolina constitution’s guarantees of, among other things, free speech and equal protection. Although the ruling does not apply to congressional districts, NBC News reports that with this decision in hand, activists are thinking about challenging those maps, too—perhaps even in time for the 2020 election.
It is of course revealing that the Republican Party, whose president floated the baseless allegation that between three and five million people voted illegally in an election he won, is responsible for an actual, documented case of stealing votes. But calling Dowless’s operation “voter fraud” isn’t really accurate, because that term refers to the alleged attempts of voters to swing an election result: casting ballots where they don’t live, for example, or impersonating someone else at the ballot box. Here, voters were the victims of a partisan plot to further rig an already rigged system. This is a fraud on the entire democratic process, and those responsible very nearly got away with it.
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Originally Appeared on GQ