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The bizarre allegations of ballot tampering in one of 2018’s closest House elections

State officials refuse to certify the results of a US House race in North Carolina. It’s a wild story.

A campaign volunteer for Dan McCready, the Democratic candidate in North Carolina’s Ninth District.
AFP/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

North Carolina election officials have declined to certify the winner of the state’s Ninth Congressional District election, after allegations were made suggesting absentee ballots may have been tampered with.

Elections officials and Democrats have been careful not to allege any specific wrongdoing so far. But the allegations suggest some kind of scheme, undertaken by people supporting the GOP campaign, to influence the results of an election ultimately decided by less than 1,000 votes.

According to the votes as currently counted, Republican Mark Harris beat Democrat Dan McCready by a little more than 900 votes to become the next Congress member from the Ninth. But earlier this week, the state board of elections unanimously agreed it would not certify the election results, making vague references to “unfortunate activities” that raised doubts about their veracity.

Some specific irregularities were later revealed in sworn affidavits sent by Democratic attorneys to the state board. Multiple voters described an unidentified woman coming to voters’ houses and taking their absentee ballots. Some ballots were uncompleted; the woman promised to finish filling them out. In other affidavits, voters alleged that a local political operative was working for the Harris campaign on absentee ballots and that he would be paid a bonus if Harris beat McCready. This is also not the first time the operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, Jr., has been linked to unusual allegations over absentee ballots.

Furthermore, political scientists in the state have noted that the Ninth District had an unusually high number of mail-in absentee ballots requested but then not returned to be counted. Almost one in four of those requested absentee ballots were not returned in the Ninth, substantially higher in than any other North Carolina congressional district.

“Currently, there is a serious question as to whether ‘irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness,’” John Wallace, an attorney working for the state Democratic Party, said in a letter sent last week to the board of elections.

The elections board voted on Friday to hold a hearing on the evidence of ballot tampering before December 21. Under North Carolina law, the evidence could eventually allow the board to call a new election, no matter the number of ballots in question, state experts say. The midterms might not be over just yet.

These are the specific allegations of tampering in the North Carolina Ninth

There are two major pieces to this puzzle: First, specific allegations of unusual activities related to absentee ballots, made in a series of affidavits submitted to the state board by lawyers for the Democratic Party, and second, analyses by political experts suggesting the number of absentee ballots requested but not returned in the Ninth District was unusually high.

These are the specific allegations made in the affidavits, first reported by WSOC in Charlotte and also obtained by Vox:

  • One voter says a young woman came to her house and asked for her absentee ballot because she was collecting them. The voter had made her choice for only two offices on the ballot, but still gave her ballot to the young woman, who said she would fill out the rest.
  • Another voter also says a woman came to her house and claimed she was responsible for collecting absentee ballots. The voter filled out her ballot while the young woman waited; the woman then took the ballot, but never asked the voter to sign it and did not put it in a sealed envelope.
  • A third voter says she did not request an absentee ballot but received one in the mail anyway.
  • A fourth person says she saw unusual activity at a polling site: election results being run after polls closed on the last day of early voting and observed by people who were not elections judges, which she understood to be “improper.” The person said she also helped tabulate absentee ballots after the election that were quite worn and had “coding” written on them.
  • A fifth person, Dwight Sheppard, says he overheard people talking outside a polling station on Election Day who said a well-known local operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, Jr., would be paid a $40,000 bonus if Harris won the election.

In another affidavit — signed and witnessed, but not notarized — a sixth person said he actually talked to Dowless in April during the Republican primary, in which Harris upset sitting Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger, According to this person, Dowless said he was working on the absentee vote for Harris, that he had 80 people working for him, and that he accepted cash payments only from campaigns.

On Monday, Judd Legum at Popular Information might have added another piece to this puzzle: he obtained a set of 160 absentee ballots and found they had been witnessed en masse by a few people, some of whom witnessed as many as 40 ballots. Legum reported that some of the people who witnessed an oddly high number of ballots were also related to Dowless.

This isn’t the first time Dowless’s name has come up in relation to voting shenanigans: In 2016, several people filed complaints about campaign workers hired by Dowless who were collecting absentee ballots, as WECT reported at the time. (Confusing matters even further: Dowless was, at the time, alleging voter fraud undertaken by Democrats. There’s a lot going on here.)

Dowless was paid as a contractor by the Harris campaign in 2018, the Charlotte Observer reported. He denies any wrongdoing.

The evidence as presented so far does not draw a direct line from the woman collecting ballots from voters to Dowless or the Harris campaign. But in the letter to the state board, Democratic attorneys alluded to Dowless as a person of interest for state investigators and continued with a series of questions about these allegations of unusual and possibly illegal activities.

“The public deserves to know,” Wallace, the Democratic attorney, said to conclude his request for a hearing on the vote tampering evidence.

The number of not-returned absentee ballots in the Ninth was unusually high

Most of the attention has focused on two counties in the Ninth: Bladen and Robeson, in the southeast corner of the state near the South Carolina border. Notably, each of the affidavits provided by Democratic attorneys involved voters in Bladen County, and one man said that Dowless himself had stated he was working on absentee ballots for Harris in the county.

Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College who obsessively follows North Carolina, documented the unusual trend in those counties: They had a much higher rate of mail-in absentee ballots that were requested but not returned, compared to other counties in the Ninth District.

Michael Bitzer/Old North State Politics

And at the district level, according to Bitzer’s calculations, the Ninth had a much higher rate of unreturned absentee ballots than any other district in North Carolina.

Michael Bitzer/Old North State Politics

Bitzer also found that the share of votes Harris received from mail-in absentee ballots in Bladen was remarkably high. It was the only county where the Republican won the mail-in absentee vote, earning 61 percent to McCready’s 38 percent.

Strangely, though, based on the partisan breakdown of absentee ballots accepted in the county, Harris would have needed to win not only all of the Republican ballots but also almost every single ballot from voters not registered with either party and a substantial number of Democratic ballots as well.

Michael Bitzer/Old North State Politics

Much like the sworn affidavits, there isn’t an outright allegation of wrongdoing to be found here. But the suggestion is pretty clear: Harris seems to have benefitted from an oddly high share of votes in these two counties, where an operative of his was allegedly working, and where a number of voters said that their absentee ballots had been collected from them in a highly unusual manner.

What happens next: maybe a new election and probably a lawsuit

The state board took these allegations seriously enough to vote unanimously — with four Democratic members, four Republicans, and one unaffiliated member — not to certify the results from the Ninth District.

Democrats want further investigation into these various allegations of odd behavior and possible tampering, and the state board seems ready to pursue the matter. At the end of the day, North Carolina law allows the elections board to call for a new election if there is evidence that casts doubt on the basic fairness of the vote. The number of ballots in doubt or in question doesn’t appear to make a difference.

“By my statutory reading and interpretation, it doesn’t matter whether there are enough votes that may or may not necessarily change the outcome,” Bitzer told me.

But Republicans aren’t going to sit idly by. They are urging the state elections board to certify the Ninth District’s results and threatening litigation if they fail to do so. They noted that the number of absentee ballots in question is not enough to change the results, though experts say that is irrelevant, under state law, to whether the board can call another vote.

“Democrats are throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at the wall to try and steal an election,” North Carolina Republican Party chair Robin Hayes said a statement. “Mark Harris was elected to Congress. Mark Harris is going to Congress.”

This story has already been so wildly unpredictable that it would be irresponsible to speculate where it might go from here. And in the end, the main consequence for Congress is just one seat in the new Democratic House majority.

But given omnipresent and unsubstantiated Republican warnings of voter fraud and election theft, the situation unfolding in the North Carolina Ninth is rather remarkable.