Politics & Government

‘Do u care who u vote for?’ Investigators found indications of ballot harvesting in 2016

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McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County elected official and political operative, paid workers to collect absentee ballots and return them to him before the 2016 election, witnesses told state board of election investigators, according to documents released Wednesday afternoon.

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement released the documents as part of its investigation into mail-in absentee ballot and voting irregularities during the 2018 election in Bladen and Robeson counties. The board has declined to certify the results of North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District race as a result.

In 2018, Republican Mark Harris — the apparent winner of the 9th district election by 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready — hired Dowless to work on absentee ballots and get-out-the-vote operations in Bladen County.

The 2016 investigation found “information strongly suggesting” that Dowless “was paying certain individuals to solicit absentee request forms and to collect absentee ballots from Bladen County voters. In doing so, workers employed by Dowless were required to hand-carry the ballots to Dowless in order to be paid,” the board wrote in a January 2018 summary of its 2016 investigations.

It is illegal, outside of very specific circumstances, to collect someone else’s absentee ballot.

The state board turned over three cases — two involving Dowless and one involving the Bladen County Improvement Association — to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, according to the summary.

A spokesperson for U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon’s office declined to comment Wednesday.

Similar allegations have surfaced during the 2018 election.

Dowless, 62, denied breaking the law in a statement released by his lawyer on Tuesday. Dowless is a convicted felon.

“Mr. Dowless is a highly respected member of our community who is routinely sought after for his campaign expertise,” his lawyer, Cynthia Adams Singletary said in a statement. “He has not violated any state or federal campaign laws and current ongoing investigations will prove the same. All speculation is premature and wholly unwarranted.”

Dowless couldn’t immediately be reached via telephone Wednesday evening. Dowless refused an interview request by the state board.

“Mr. Dowless declines an interview with the State Board of Elections at this time,” his lawyer wrote in a Dec. 18 email to Josh Lawson, the general counsel for the state board.

‘Go out and collect ballots’

Handwritten affidavits from several people involved in the 2016 operation and subsequent investigation show people said they were paid by Dowless to collect ballots.

Caitlyn Croom wrote that she met someone named “Kelly” at a bar where they both worked. Kelly asked her if she wanted to work with her, and they met Dowless the next day in Dublin.

He offered them $225, in two installments, to collect absentee ballot requests from voters. That’s legal.

What allegedly happened next is not.

“We would then start to go out and collect ballots,” Croom wrote.

If they got 20, they’d get the other half of the $225.

“After we had all 20 of them witness and were signed we would take them back to McCrae. He would then take them and tell us he would handel (sic) mailing them off.”

“He told us not to let anyone know that we were being paid based on how many req. (request) forms and ballots we got for him,” Croom wrote.

Matthew Matthis wrote that he also met someone named “Kelly” two months before the 2016 election, and she asked if he wanted a job.

“Being broke I said ‘yes I would,’” Matthis wrote.

He met Dowless in Dublin the next day. Dowless told him that he would collect 20 absentee ballot requests and then go back and get the ballots from voters, Matthis wrote, and he’d get $225.

If anyone asked what the money was for, Dowless said to tell them it was for time and gas, not ballots.

“Once I went and got the ballots I, along with my girlfriend Caitlyn, were to witness the ballot’s signature and then return them to McCrae,” he said.

Once investigators contacted him, Matthis wrote that he turned to Dowless.

Matthis wrote that Dowless instructed him to say he’d taken three ballots to Dowless “because we had watched Ms. (Linda) Baldwin sign all three of those ballots and we wanted to show him the wrongdoing.”

Matthis wrote Dowless told him to tell investigators that Dowless had instructed him to take the ballots “straight back and not mess with them.”

“Just say that and you will be alright,” Dowless said, according to Matthis.

‘Yo, do u care who u vote for?’

The documents show texts sent to a phone number identified as Dowless’ from a cell phone shared by Croom and Matthis — who Dowless testified, in a 2016 elections board hearing, had done “get out the vote” work for him. Dowless was saved as “McCrae Boss Man” in the phone, according to photos of the messages.

In one exchange, the shared phone texts Dowless asking for more money since two of the candidates he was working for won their elections.

“Hey mccrae, u said if ray and ashley both won we would get a bonus lol,” says one message from the shared phone, followed a minute later by: “I’m just asking if u were serious... we’re broke as a bad joke”

Dowless doesn’t respond.

Matthis told investigators that Dowless provided them with a “sample ballot” that marked candidates he wanted Matthis and Croom to “push.”

Those candidates included presidential candidate Donald Trump, then-Gov. Pat McCrory, Bladen County commission candidates Ray Britt and Ashley Trivette, judicial candidates Douglass B. Sasser, W. Richard Cox, C. Ashley Gore, Jason Disbrow, and Scott Ussery, as well as Dowless himself, according to the investigator’s record of an interview with Matthis.

All of them won except McCrory and Cox.

Later, they text him back, expressing concern about a state investigator who was asking questions about their operation.

“Hey mccrae that weird number was the investigators,” they wrote. “They called me again today. They want to meet with me in the morning, im scared and I don’t remember half of what we are supposed to say. I’ve never been investigated for anything.”

It’s unclear if it was Croom or Matthis who texted that message.

In a transcript of the 2016 elections board hearing, Dowless at one point said that he had passed on Croom’s phone number to state investigators who wanted to talk to her.

At another point, he testified that Matthis at one point contacted him and asked to meet in the parking lot of an Elizabethtown fast food restaurant, after investigators had spoken with Matthis.

“I believe his words was, ‘I’m scared,’” Dowless told the board in that 2016 hearing.

“I said, ‘Well, Mr. Matthis, I didn’t hire you.’ I said, ‘I hired Catie.’ I says, ‘Now, what you’ve done you’ve done on your own and if you’ve done something wrong, you need to tell the people.’” That was my exact words to that gentleman. I said, ‘If you have done something wrong, you need to tell the investigators.’”

One message from the Croom-Matthis phone describes being paid to collect people’s absentee ballots and fill them in.

“Hey bro.. u tryna let me get ur info so I can fill one of these forms out for u? It’ll send a voting ballot to your home.. I’ll have it sent to me and I’ll ask u who u wanna vote for and fill it out for u if u want. Only way I get paid is getting people to do this junk.”

“I guess so but I’m still in Ohio right now,” Michael Register responded.

A message asks him for his Social Security number and birth date, to get him registered to vote. It’s unclear if he was a North Carolina resident at the time, or an Ohio resident, based on his previous response.

“That’s straight bro, I can fill it out for u,” they responded. “I just need ur bday and the last 4 of your ssn to make sure ur registered to vote. How is it up there?”

A later message asks for his information again. “What’s the last 4 digits of your social sec number and ur date of birth... I’m getting timmy ur mom and ur dad to fill one out too lol.”

Messages then ask Register if he can get the Social Security number for someone else with him in Ohio, and tell him about efforts that didn’t go so well.

“I tried getting jay to do 1 but he’s too young,” they wrote.

A later text asks, “Yo, do u care who u vote for? I got your ballot in the mail. Who u want for president?”

Register responds, “I don’t really think it makes a difference but [REDACTED] he will be the one to finally start the zombie apocalpyse lol”

The response: “Lmfao. Right on.”

It’s unclear if Register’s ballot was used to cast votes for any other candidates other than the presidential candidate Register specifically asked for.

Bladen County Improvement Association

A separate 2016 investigation focused on a group tied to Democrats in Bladen County.

The state elections board launched an investigation into the Bladen County Improvement Association after a Bladen elections board member, Brian Hehl, noticed that several ballots with write-in votes for the Soil and Water Conservation District race featured similar handwriting, according to the board’s summary.

“Upon closer examination, Mr. Hehl noticed patterns of similar handwriting on the ballot container envelopes associated with the witnesses for those ballots, suggesting that the write-in votes, which were for candidate Franklin Graham, were possibly written by the same four or five witnesses, rather than the voters,” the summary says.

But the state elections board on Dec. 3, 2016, voted to dismiss a complaint over the irregularities.

“While improper assistance may have been provided by the individuals who wrote the write-in candidate’s name on the ballot without signing the assistance certification, there was insufficient evidence to disqualify the affected ballots” under state law, according to the disclosures released Wednesday.

The board’s investigation focused on 234 mail-in ballots featuring write-in votes for Graham. The names most-frequently appearing on the mail-in envelopes were: Deborah Monroe, Lola Wooten, Barbara Cogdell, Mary Johnson, Bridgette Keaton, Keana Keaton, and Arthur Owens, the documents show.

Handwriting of the ballot witnesses in some cases matched handwriting of the ballot envelope, the investigation found.

However, neither the Bladen nor state elections boards received complaints from voters believed to have been assisted by the Bladen Improvement Association, according to the documents.

“Workers associated with the BCIA who were located and interviewed by State Board investigators admitted that they printed the name of write-in candidate Franklin Graham on the ballots for voters they were assisting as witnesses,” the disclosure reads. “The witnesses cited reasons such as advanced age, poor handwriting, poor spelling, voter convenience, as explanations as to why they wrote the candidate’s name on the ballot for the voter. The witnesses indicated that they assisted with the voter’s consent and wrote the write-in candidate’s name per the wishes of the voter.”

None of the witnesses who assisted with write-in votes signed an “assistance certification” line, which was required, documents show.

The state elections board suspended further interviews of people who witnessed ballots after the Improvement Association tapped attorney Irving Joyner to represent its members. The board then interviewed six voters who received help from those frequent ballot witnesses.

“Two of the voters denied that the witnesses were ever present with them when they voted. They had no logical explanation as to how the witnesses were able to sign their ballots and, overall, their statements concerning the circumstances of their vote were of questionable credibility,” according to the board’s summary.

“No evidence was found to indicate the voters were coerced or intimidated by the witnesses into allowing the witness to assist with their write-in vote.”

The state board attempted to conduct more voter interviews before the Dec. 3 hearing, but was unsuccessful.

The executive director of the state Republican Party said failure to act on complaints “emboldened behavior.”

“We simply don’t know what happened or did not happen in Bladen County in 2018, however if there was bad or illegal behavior, and we don’t know for certain there was, I think the current NCSBE Chair (Joshua Malcolm)’s dismissal of our complaint dealing with absentee balloting in Bladen County in 2016, was unhelpful,” Dallas Woodhouse said in an email. “Every time complaints were filed and the state failed to act, it inevitably emboldened behavior.”

The state board forwarded the case and the two other Bladen County cases to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, according to the state board’s summary.

Follow more of our reporting on The North Carolina election fraud investigation

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.