The state elections board has extended its investigation into allegations of illegal absentee-ballot gathering to Columbus County, with a focus on a sheriff’s race that has yet to be certified.
Pat Gannon, a board spokesman, said Thursday an investigator is seeking to collect absentee ballot request forms, absentee ballot container envelopes and any collection logs the Columbus County board keeps.
“There is a sheriff’s race in Columbus County where an appeal is pending before the state board,” he said in a phone interview. “There is also an ongoing investigation related to absentee ballot irregularities in the neighboring 9th Congressional District.”
Gannon said he could not provide more details. But the board’s moves are similar to what it has done in Bladen and Robeson counties, where investigators are looking at the activities of a political operative, McCrae Dowless, and the people who worked for him.
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TV station WECT first reported the investigation in Columbus County.
Dowless, 62, who lives on the outskirts of Bladenboro, has worked for Democrats and Republicans for more than a decade on get-out-the-vote efforts. He and his attorney say he has done nothing wrong in his work on election campaigns. This year, his biggest client was Republican Mark Harris, the apparent winner of the 9th district race with 905 votes more than Democrat Dan McCready.
McCready had conceded that contest, but then the state board announced it would not certify the race over concerns about absentee ballot gathering efforts. On Wednesday, the board released exhibits that included statements from two people working for Dowless in the 2016 election in which they admitted to improper handling of ballots. A hearing to review the evidence is set for Jan. 11.
In Columbus County, campaign finance records show that Republican sheriff candidate S. Jody Greene paid political strategy firm Red Dome $2,500 for “consulting for campaign” in August. Dowless worked for Red Dome, the company has said.
Greene beat the incumbent, Lewis Hatcher, a Democrat, by fewer than 40 votes. More than 300 votes in the race were cast using mail-in absentee ballots. Hatcher won 243 of those absentee votes to Greene’s 93, according to results posted on the state elections board’s website.
The county elections board dismissed four complaints challenging the results in the sheriff’s race. At least two have since been appealed to the the state board.
Neither Greene nor Hatcher responded to interview requests from The News & Observer.
But Greene’s wife, Angie, said in an interview last week at the elections office: “We did not specifically hire McCrae Dowless. We hired Red Dome.”
She said neither she nor her husband had knowledge of anything illegal being done on behalf of the campaign.
“Our focus was on getting out our platform,” she said. “Our focus was not on absentee ballots.”
Dowless, however, may have had that focus.
Early in the election cycle, he went to the Columbus County elections office and introduced himself to the staff, said Jackie Bozeman, the office’s interim director, in an interview last week. She could not be reached by phone Thursday regarding the state board investigation. A woman who answered the phone there directed calls to Gannon.
Bozeman had heard of Dowless because she has a friend who works in elections in Bladen County, but she said she hadn’t seen Dowless in Columbus County before.
Dowless told Bozeman to expect a woman who worked for him, Lisa Britt, to bring in absentee ballot request forms.
And Britt did – about 150 forms in all, Bozeman said.
Dowless also continued to drop by. He was requesting records that many political campaigns request, Bozeman said.
“I just thought he was the new guy on the block,” she said. “He didn’t throw up a red flag for me.”
The last records request Dowless submitted was at 4:18 p.m. on Nov. 8, two days after the election. Bozeman had the request form taped to a fixture in her office.
The document shows Dowless asked for “Copy of Provisional Poll Book of all 26 precincts and Absentee By Mail come in on November, 7,8, 2018.”
“He did not get this information,” Bozeman said. “The director was here, and she did not give it to him.”
Bozeman wasn’t sure why. Carla Strickland, the director, is out on medical leave.
Mary Small, of Tabor City, is one of the voters who signed an absentee ballot request form after Britt came to her door.
Small said in a phone interview she knew Britt because she lived nearby, and she knew her family was struggling with damage from Hurricane Florence.
Small said she requested absentee ballots for herself and her husband. But five absentee ballots showed up in the mailbox. In addition to the two she ordered, Small received one for her father-in-law, one for her grandson and one for her grandson’s girlfriend, none of whom live at the house. She said she sent the unwanted ballots back to the election office.
Britt never came back to collect the ballots, Small said. All of the ballots show up in state records as unreturned.
According to records provided by Columbus County, 32 percent of the absentee ballots requested were not returned. Elections experts say that a typical rate for unreturned ballots is about half that.
One of the complaints appealed to the state elections board was submitted by Nancy Hill, mayor of Brunswick. She wrote that she represented the Columbus County Forum, a recently formed nonprofit that she described as “focused on encouraging a safe and strong democratic system for all people.”
Hill raised the issue of possible wrongdoing by “Republican Party affiliates that have a strong association with said Republican Chair and third party agencies acquired by specific Republican candidates.” She mentioned Dowless by name and notes, “Records can be found showing delivery of Voter Registration and absentee request forms.”
Hill also alleges several election-related problems, including that Mitchell Mercer, who Hill identified as the chair of the county GOP, was improperly given a role as a precinct judge; that voting machines were inappropriately maintained; that poll workers were inadequately trained; and that ballots submitted by several people who live in a nursing home were not counted. The appeal included several affidavits from people who said they were either turned away at the polls or witnessed that happening to others.
Hill also contended that her complaint was handled inappropriately by the Columbus County elections board.
A separate appeal submitted by Gloria Smith includes some of the same allegations. She complained that the protest hearing was delayed by more than five hours, so one of her key witnesses had to leave before the hearing started.
Smith also objected to her protest being dismissed on a technicality. On the protest form, she indicated that she was neither a candidate for office nor a registered voter when she is, in fact, a registered voter.
Smith’s appeal raised questions about whether Greene, the Republican candidate for sheriff, lives at the address he provided to establish residency.
County records show that Greene’s Cerro Gordo address does not include any buildings. He has owned the 40 acres since 2011.
Property records show Greene also owns a home in North Myrtle Beach and his wife owns a house in Lumberton.
Greene’s neighbor and longtime friend, Lacy Eugene Batten, said in an interview in front of his home last week that Greene did live at his Cerro Gordo address, in a travel trailer.
In an interview last week, Angie Greene, the sheriff’s wife, said the couple lived in Columbus County, but she didn’t want to say where due to security concerns. She said the family faced threats due to Greene’s earlier work as a drug enforcement officer and the aggressive approach to drugs he promised to take as sheriff.
Angie Greene said it was the election board’s job to check that candidates were eligible to serve in the position they sought. Bozeman, the interim director of the county elections board, noted that candidates sign an affidavit that declares their address. She said the only address-vetting that elections officials perform is to match the address a candidate submits to the address linked to their voter registration.
Gannon, the state elections board spokesman, said the board has yet to certify the results of the sheriff’s race – even though Greene has been sworn in and the sheriff’s office has posted signs with his name.
“My understanding is that the county has not issued a certificate in that race, and thus he should not have been sworn in,” Gannon said in an email. “Sheriff Hatcher should still be serving as sheriff.”
The case won’t be heard until the board holds a hearing on the congressional district results, Gannon said.