Politics & Government

NC election official resigns saying, ‘Things have gotten way out of hand’

An elections official who raised public concerns about someone tampering with ballots in Bladen County has now resigned, saying “Things have gotten way out of hand.”

Jens Lutz, vice-chair of the Bladen County Board of Elections, says he will not stay on in that role, as state investigators continue to probe allegations of widespread absentee ballot fraud.

Lutz also served in recent years as chairman of the Bladen County Democratic Party and once tried, unsuccessfully, to expand alcohol sales in Bladenboro — a dry town where stores cannot sell beer or wine.

In a letter this past week to Kim Strach, the director of North Carolina’s state elections board, Lutz said he was leaving his Bladen County post immediately.

Multiple media outlets on Monday reported Lutz’ letter to Strach said members of his own political party are attacking him and critics are dragging members of his family “into the drama.”

“Sometimes in life circumstances reach the breaking point especially when (you’re) trying to do the right thing,” Lutz wrote. ”I regret having to do this but things have gotten way out of hand.”

Lutz resigned as some questioned his past business ties to the man now at the center of state investigators’ attention: McCrae Dowless. Dowless is a well-known political operative in Bladen County who worked with a consultant firm hired by Republican Mark Harris’ campaign during Harris’ 2018 run for Congress.

Lutz shared concerns on Facebook

But, before news reporters flocked to Dowless’ house and state elections investigators descended on Bladen County, Lutz was sharing his own concerns.

Two posts on Lutz’ Facebook page before the 2018 midterm elections show he was worried about fraud.

Jens Lutz - at the time a county elections offical - posted a warning about possible impropriety with absentee ballots in Bladen County a day before the midterm election was held. Now, state investigators have subpoenaed multiple political campaigns and questioned whether paid campaign workers illegally collected hundreds of absentee mail-in ballots. Facebook - Jens Lutz

Rumors swirled, according to Lutz’ post, of people going door-to-door in Bladen County to pick up ballots — which runs afoul of North Carolina law (only family members are allowed to deliver an absentee ballot on someone else’s behalf). Some people, Lutz suggests, may have received blank ballots in the mail even though they had not requested an absentee mail-in ballot.

Lutz promised to look into complaints.

“Our present (elections) board is committed to protecting the integrity of each person’s right to vote regardless of party and takes a dim view of any person or person’s attempting to circumvent this process! If you have further concerns or questions, you may (private message) me,” he wrote on Facebook in mid October — which, according to state voter records available online, is when many absentee ballots were mailed in Bladen County.

Before the state elections board sent investigators to Bladen County in 2018, Jens Lutz, a former county Democratic Party chairman, said there were “concerns” of people collecting absentee ballots from voters. Lutz resigned from the Bladen County Board of Elections amid an ongoing investigation into election fraud.

Then, just 24 hours before Election Day, Lutz posted again:

“One last warning! Have you have [sic] been approached to collect your absentee ballot by someone other than a family member. Have you received an absentee ballot that you have not requested? Have you given your absentee ballot to someone other than a family member for delivery? ...

“Possession of an absentee ballot or delivery by someone other than yourself or a family member is illegal!”

Then, Lutz told voters to call the Bladen County Board of Elections if they had been approached for their absentee ballot or had already handed it over to someone.

The next day, election results rolled in.

But, the numbers in Bladen County for the 9th congressional race stuck out.

In this rural county of less than 35,000 people, the rate of ballots mailed in was higher here than anywhere else in the state. Most of those votes went to Harris, the Republican, even though public records show the majority of the people whose names were printed on the ballots are actually registered Democrats.

Harris has said he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing during the election.

The business connection

Lutz, a real estate agent and a retired fire department captain from Lumberton, could not be reached on Monday and did not respond to a text message or two phone calls from the Charlotte Observer.

Public records show Lutz and Dowless were once in business together. In 2014, they incorporated Politico Management Services, according to a filing with the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office.

Lutz told Charlotte TV station WSOC on Saturday that the company he started with Dowless was a political consulting firm. But, he refused to tell WSOC who their clients were — saying those campaigns or candidates could now be under investigation.

Lutz claims he only started Politico Management Services with Dowless to keep an eye on him. He told Wilmington-based TV station WCET on Saturday that he wanted to “figure out how he was operating.”

He went on to tell WCET that he was glad state investigators are questioning Dowless and other campaigns.

“I’ve been committed since 2010 to seeing the Board of Elections cleaned up,” Lutz told the TV station. “I’m pleased that it’s looking more now than ever like something will be done to fix this.”

Before Lutz joined the elections oversight board, he worked on campaigns himself.

In 2010, Lutz worked on behalf of Prentis Benston, who went on to be the first African-American ever elected sheriff in Bladen County.

Lutz was described as a “campaign strategist” for Benston in an article by the Fayetteville Observer. In 2010, Benston ran against a fellow Bladen County sheriff’s deputy, Eric Bryan, for the seat that was being left open by a retiring sheriff.

At the time, Lutz, according to the Fayetteville newspaper, said: “I’ve worked in several campaigns, and I have never worked in a nastier race.”

That same article says someone from Benston’s campaign accused Bryan of hiring Dowless — “a known felon” — but Bryan denied Dowless worked for his campaign. Dowless, public records show, was convicted in 1990 of perjury and in 1992 of insurance fraud — both felony crimes.

Later, Dowless would go on to work for Benstons’ next challenger — Republican Sheriff Jim McVicker.

McVicker’s campaign is one of multiple political campaigns to be subpoenaed by state investigators following the 2018 midterms. He was sworn in this month for a second term.

Anna Douglas is an investigative reporter for the Charlotte Observer. Previously, she worked as a local news reporter for The (Rock Hill) Herald and as a congressional correspondent in Washington, D.C., for McClatchy. Anna is a past recipient of the South Carolina Press Association’s Journalist of the Year award and the Charlotte Society of Professional Journalists’ Outstanding Journalism Award. She’s a South Carolina native, a graduate of Winthrop University, and a past fellow of the Dori Maynard Diversity Leadership Program, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. Anna has lived in Charlotte since May 2017.