As more details emerge about the state election board’s investigation into Bladen County election improprieties in 2016, unanswered questions burn hotter: How did it happen again in 2018? And what prevents a repeat in 2020?
In this year’s primary and general elections, McCrae Dowless, a paid political operative working for 9th Congressional District candidate Mark Harris, reportedly sent out workers to solicit and retrieve absentee ballots in apparent violation of the law. Workers talked of handing over the ballots to Dowless.
Harris had apparently won the November election over Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, but the elections board has not certified the race amid an investigation into allegations of election fraud.
State and Bladen County GOP leaders have recently sought to place the blame on the election board. But on Dec. 21, the board released a letter written by executive director Kim Strach, dated Jan. 30, 2017, showing that it had forwarded the 2016 case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District.
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“Our findings to date suggest that individuals and potentially groups of individuals engaged in efforts to manipulate election results through the absentee ballot process,” Strach wrote in the 2017 letter. “The evidence we have obtained suggest that these efforts may have taken place in the past and if not addressed will likely continue for future elections.”
Discussions followed, but federal authorities made no apparent effort to interview witnesses or gather records last year. Instead, as Dowless’ suspect operations began anew this year, federal prosecutors in the district launched an unrelated elections probe.
They investigated and charged 19 citizens of other countries with voting illegally in the 2016 election. The U.S. Attorney’s office also issued a subpoena to election officials at the state and in the eastern district’s 44 counties for a broad array of voter records as part of an effort related to immigration enforcement.
Bob Hall, the retired executive director of Democracy NC, questioned why the U.S. Attorney would prosecute cases that had little impact on elections, while Dowless’ operation involving hundreds of ballots could potentially swing outcomes. The non-partisan Democracy NC researches elections-related problems and advocates for policy changes.
“It didn’t get the resources of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office, and it should have,” Hall said. “It was political corruption that became a low priority in the U.S. Attorney’s office unless it involved specific characters, particularly immigrants and non-citizens, that fit an agenda, a narrative, of what kind of election fraud was important.”
Hall had attended a 2016 state election board hearing on Dowless’ own claim of election fraud. A large number of absentee ballots had been submitted for his opponent’s get-out-the-vote drive for a Bladen County Soil and Water District supervisor’s race, he claimed. The election board found insufficient evidence to throw out the suspect ballots but agreed to seek the U.S. Attorney’s involvement, as reflected in Strach’s 2017 letter.
The 2016 hearing also left a bitter taste for Republicans. Dowless was supposed to help cement their case that Republican Gov. Pat McCrory was the rightful winner in a close election that instead went to Democrat Roy Cooper. It all fell apart, though, as evidence emerged of Dowless’s shady get-out-the-vote efforts. McCrory conceded shortly after.
Strach wrote the 2017 letter to John Stuart Bruce, then the acting U.S. Attorney, as newly elected President Donald Trump set about picking a successor. Bruce had been lauded for his work on public corruption cases, including those that led to convictions of former House Speaker Jim Black and former state Agriculture Secretary Meg Scott Phipps, both Democrats.
Trump settled on a longtime assistant U.S. Attorney, Robert Higdon, for the top job in North Carolina’s eastern district. Higdon took over in October 2017. Bruce would later take a job as deputy general counsel for investigations at the state elections board.
Neither he nor Higdon are talking about the 2016 case. Patrick Gannon, the board’s spokesman, said Bruce is prevented by federal rules from speaking. Spokespeople for Higdon have repeatedly said in emails that he is not commenting.
Gannon said meetings were held with prosecutors after Strach’s 2017 letter. But by the end of 2017, the board reached out to Lorrin Freeman, Wake County’s district attorney. Freeman has said she began an investigation in early 2018, but that she wasn’t far enough along to action during this year’s primary and general elections.
Meanwhile, Jon David, the state district attorney representing Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties, also sent a letter to Freeman in early 2018 suggesting that she take the case. He said he saw a potential conflict: Dowless had worked for David’s opponents in past races.
State investigative resources lacking
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, called the apparent failure of the U.S. Attorney’s office to follow through on the letter from the state Board of Elections “disappointing and baffling.” The Raleigh-based non-profit group works to make government more open and accountable.
One of the lessons from all the revelations of alleged election fraud, Phillips said, is that legislators need to give the state elections board more resources and more authority to oversee local boards of elections so it can “fully and comprehensively address any problems that are raised.”
“The legislature has failed ... over the years to provide adequate funding” to the state elections board, Phillips said. A large state like North Carolina needs more than four election fraud investigators at the state level, Phillips said. (A fifth position, for an investigative analyst, is vacant, Gannon said.)
“And the State Board of Elections isn’t as strong as it needs to be in managing (100) local boards,” Phillips said. “There are certainly big differences in capacities and resources locally.”
In some of the state’s smaller, poorer counties, like Bladen, questions of election fraud “have been around for many years,” Phillips said.
State lawmakers passed legislation this month remaking the state election board, and it includes a change that Cooper said would make matters worse. The legislation requires campaign finance complaints to be made to the State Ethics Commission, The News & Observer has reported. The commission would make confidential recommendations to the State Board of Elections over whether or not criminal referrals should be made to district attorneys.
Cooper vetoed the legislation over that provision, saying in his veto message: “These new provisions operate to obscure the truth rather than shine a light on it.” Republicans who run the legislature say the board has devolved into partisan politics. They had Democratic support for the legislation but lost nearly all of it in a successful vote Thursday to override the governor’s veto.
Hall, of Democracy NC, said the board’s public hearings have shone a powerful light on bad behavior. They exposed a blank-check scheme former House Speaker Black used to build up his campaign coffers, as well as excessive donations from hog farming interests into state races that were first run through national GOP organizations. Reforms followed that tackled both practices.
“Having the public’s attention, getting public pressure on prosecutors to take problems seriously and devote the resources to address them, that’s super important,” Hall said. “And that only comes with the transparency and disclosure. That’s the value of those public investigative hearings.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the state elections board bill and understated initial Democratic support. The State Ethics Commission would make confidential recommendations to the State Board of Elections over whether or not criminal referrals should be made to district attorneys. The story incorrectly said it would apply to fraud investigations like the one in the 9th Congressional District.
Charlotte Observer staff writer Bruce Henderson contributed.