Politics & Government

Bladen County GOP chairman blasts NC elections board for ‘debacle’ in 9th District

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The chairman of the Bladen County Republican Party on Thursday blamed the state’s election board for not moving more quickly after a 2016 investigation showed evidence of an absentee ballot-harvesting ring by the man now at the center of a growing scandal in the 9th Congressional District.

“The 2018 election fiasco could have been avoided if the State Board of Elections had been doing its job effectively for the last eight years,” said Walter McDuffie, the county party’s chairman, in a Thursday statement. He said he hired McCrae Dowless, the controversial political operative implicated in a ballot-collecting scheme, for $1,300 for poll workers, but wouldn’t have done so if the board disclosed all of its earlier investigative results.

“The definition of failure is the State Board of Elections, investigating these matters for the last decade, failing to stop them, and failing to properly warn the public to protect themselves,” said McDuffie. The state board released its 2016 investigative file Wednesday, detailing affidavits from two people who said they were paid to collect ballots for Dowless and then lie about it on his behalf to state investigators. No charges have yet been filed in that case.

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The earlier allegations against Dowless weren’t exactly secret, however. They were partially publicized in a 2016 hearing about alleged ballot tampering — in response to a complaint brought by Dowless against a group supporting his opponent in a local race — and aired on an episode of “This American Life” that drew on the hearing.

Dowless also has a rap sheet that was public record. He was convicted of felony fraud in 1992 in Iredell County, according to court records, and served more than six months of a two-year prison sentence. Dowless, now 62, was also convicted of felony perjury in 1990, according to court records.

McDuffie also “told The Washington Post that he warned the Harris campaign about Dowless’s criminal record,” the newspaper reported in a recent story.

A spokesman for the State Board of Elections said the investigation is ongoing.

“These matters were – and still are – under investigation by the State Board and prosecutors,” Patrick Gannon said. “State law empowers the State Board to investigate frauds and irregularities in elections and refer evidence to prosecutors. The records released yesterday demonstrate that this agency has and continues to aggressively pursue these issues. The records speak for themselves.“

Bladen County is the epicenter of the disputed 9th District election, in which Republican Mark Harris defeated incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger by 828 votes in the primary and Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in the general election. The election has been tainted by allegations of illegal absentee ballot collection and leaked early voting results, and a public hearing scheduled for Jan. 11 could result in the state ordering a brand-new election — a nearly unprecedented action.

Dowless, a convicted felon, vice chairman of Bladen’s soil and water board and longtime political operative, worked for Harris’ campaign as a contractor for political consultant Red Dome Group. He’s denied wrongdoing through his attorney, but several people have told various media outlets they were paid to collect absentee ballots for Dowless — illegal under state law.

It’s not the first time Dowless has been investigated for such allegations. In 2016, investigators for the state Board of Elections obtained affidavits from Caitlyn Croom and Matthew Matthis. The Bladen County residents said they were paid $225 to collect batches of absentee ballots from local voters and deliver them to Dowless.

“Croom and Matthis were asked to bring Dowless 20 absentee requests per week and they were aIways paid in cash by Dowless,” the investigative file said. “They would meet with Dowless at his office which was located in Dublin, NC in a storefront called Dublin Aladdin Sweepstakes.”

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“We would then start to go out and collect ballots,” Croom wrote in her 2016 affidavit. “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.”

A summary of the state board’s investigation said they turned over three cases — two involving Dowless and one involving the Bladen County Improvement Association, a Democratic PAC — to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which has declined to comment. It’s not clear why no charges were brought, or what the status of the investigation is.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman has said her office has had an active criminal investigation into “potential voting irregularities” in Bladen County since early 2018, sparked by the 2016 election.

McDuffie, the Bladen County GOP chairman, was present the first time Harris met Dowless, along with Ray Britt, a Republican county commissioner in Bladen. That’s according to an interview Harris gave last week to Observer news partner WBTV.

Thursday, McDuffie said blame for the 2018 election “debacle” rests on the board for not acting more aggressively earlier in public.

“Had the board taken an aggressive public stance, held press conferences demanding criminal prosecutions, released the information they had both to warn the public and shame prosecutors into taking action, people’s behavior would have been altered,” McDuffie said. “Including mine.”

He said that because the party was “short on poll workers to hand out election day materials,” the county party hired Dowless, who provided a “significant number” of poll workers.

“This had nothing to do with absentee ballot (get out the vote) and was a perfectly legal, proper transaction that has already been disclosed to the NCSBE prior to the required reporting date,” McDuffie said. “However, I never would have done this had I known what the State Board of Elections already knew.”

Regardless of the outcome now, McDuffie said Bladen County’s reputation will be tarnished for years to come.

“For years henceforth, when people think of Bladen County, they won’t think of the events at White Lake or the Ammon Blueberry Festival,” McDuffie said. “Instead, the court of public opinion will unjustly conclude the hard-working people of this region are too stupid to vote. This is unfair and untrue.”

And, he said: “Voters in the area will feel this Congressional election was stolen no matter the outcome.”

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Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.