Dowless, key figure in NC absentee ballot fraud probe, dies

FILE - Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, N.C., Dec. 5, 2018. Dowless, the key player in a North Carolina absentee-ballot fraud case that led to a new congressional election, died Sunday, April 24, 2022, his family announced. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, File)
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., the key player in a North Carolina absentee ballot fraud probe that led to a do-over congressional election, has died.

His daughter, Andrea Dowless Heverly, wrote that her father “passed away peacefully" Sunday morning, according to a social media post. He had been diagnosed with an advanced form of lung cancer and died at his daughter's home in Bladen County, his friend Jay DeLancy told The Associated Press in a brief interview. Dowless was in his mid-60s.

The political operative was set to go on trial this summer on more than a dozen state criminal counts related to absentee ballot activities for the 2016 general election and the 2018 primary and general elections. A half-dozen others were also charged.

Witnesses told state officials that Dowless, with help of his assistants, gathered hundreds of absentee ballots from Bladen County in 2018. Those workers testified they were directed to collect blank or incomplete ballots, forge signatures on them and even fill in votes for local candidates.

The 2018 general election results for the 9th Congressional District were ultimately thrown out and a new vote for the seat was ordered by the State Board of Elections, following an inquiry.

Dowless was working in the 2018 congressional race for then-Republican candidate Mark Harris. No charges were filed against Harris, who didn’t run in the subsequent election.

Dowless was later accused of charges related to the 2016 elections and the 2018 primary.

Dowless’ health had become an issue while receiving a six-month prison sentence for federal crimes involving benefits fraud that was tangentially related to the broader state probe.

A federal judge delayed Dowless’ reporting date from last December to April 1 after his defense attorney said Dowless had a stroke in August and learned in the fall about a potential cancer diagnosis.

Dowless’ federal attorney filed another motion in March that she requested be sealed “due to the inclusion of sensitive health information.” The Federal Bureau of Prisons never reported Dowless as being in custody.

Dowless’ state and federal attorneys didn’t immediately respond to emails on Sunday seeking comment. But with Dowless’ death, the absentee ballot case against him is now moot.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said legal delays caused by COVID-19 contributed to the inability to bring Dowless to trial sooner.

While expressing condolences to Dowless’ family, Freeman said Sunday her office would move forward with the prosecution of other defendants, even though Dowless had been seen as the principal in the probe.

“All of the other cases to some degree were derived from what the state thought was his master plan and coordination,” Freeman told the AP. She said each individual case would be evaluated before deciding how to proceed.

Dowless declined to accept a plea agreement on the state charges in November. The charges against him included obstruction of justice, possessing absentee ballots and perjury.

DeLancy, who saw Dowless last week, said Dowless “wanted the chance to defend himself against the state’s indictments” and rejected the plea deal “in hopes of being given his day in court.”

Dowless was “a man who was quick to trust and even love others by his acts of service,” DeLancy said in a text message.

Dowless had pleaded guilty last June in federal court to obtaining illegal Social Security benefits while concealing payments for political work he performed.


This story has been corrected to show that Dowless declined a plea agreement in November, 2021, not that summer.