Politics & Government

Who’s who in North Carolina’s 9th District election fraud scandal

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Election fraud investigation

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It’s a challenge to keep up with the ever-expanding cast of characters in the 9th Congressional District election fraud allegations. So we’ve broken down the key players in the 9th District, from politicians to state investigators to local residents who said they were paid to collect ballots.

Check back often: We’ll add names as the narrative unfolds.

The Politicos

Mark Harris: A conservative preacher from First Baptist Church in Charlotte, Harris has been a force in state politics since he helped spearhead the 2012 campaign to amend the North Carolina constitution and declare marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

He ran for the US Senate in 2014 and lost in the primary. In 2016, he lost the primary for the 9th District US House seat to Robert Pittenger by just 134 votes. In 2018, he ran in the 9th District again, beating Pittenger by 828 votes in the primary and Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in the general election to finally win political office, according to unofficial results.

But his campaign had hired McCrae Dowless, the operative at the center of the scandal, and Harris now faces an investigation and the possibility of a new election. Harris has said that hiring Dowless was his decision.

Since the election, Harris has said he’s cooperating with the probe and met with state investigators in Raleigh. He has also filed a lawsuit in Wake County seeking to force certification of his election.

Republican and former pastor Mark Harris was the unofficial winner of the 9th District congressional seat over Dan McCready, but now he's at the center of a political scandal.

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Andy Yates: The founder and owner of Red Dome Group, a Huntersville-based political consulting firm that’s worked for the N.C. GOP and dozens of state, federal and local candidates. Harris’ campaign paid Red Dome $428,908, and Red Dome hired McCrae Dowless as a contractor for “get out the vote” efforts in Bladen County. Red Dome has been subpoenaed.

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McCrae Dowless: A convicted felon, elected official and the “guru of Bladen County.” Dowless has been active in politics for at least a decade, running “get out the vote” efforts for local candidates. He’s also the longtime host of “Politicians Appreciation Day” in Bladen County, an event held every two years where candidates give short stump speeches as dozens of voters and party officials eat barbecue. He’s accused of hiring people to collect absentee ballots, an illegal practice known as “harvesting.” Dowless is a Soil & Water District commissioner in Bladen, an election he won in 2016. That year, he worked for Todd Johnson, a Republican challenger for the 9th District who won 221 out of 226 absentee votes in Bladen. In 2018, Harris’ campaign hired him through Red Dome Group. Dowless has denied wrongdoing, through his attorney, and has declined to speak with state election investigators.

McCrae Dowless is at the center of controversy in North Carolina's 9th district, but most of the time he's stayed behind the scenes.

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Robert Pittenger: The former three-term Republican congressman from the 9th District. Pittenger he will not run again even if there’s a new primary election for his seat. He has said he passed on hiring McCrae Dowless because he was uncomfortable with the Bladen County operative’s practices.

Dan McCready: The Democratic challenger in the 9th District, who raised more than $6.1 million for the state’s most expensive congressional campaign and lost by 905 votes to Republican Mark Harris. McCready, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, has withdrawn his concession and is aggressively fundraising to prepare for a new election.

Robin Hayes: Chairman of the NC GOP, Hayes, a former congressman, is a Harris ally who chaired his 2014 Senate campaign. Hayes said Dec. 11 that a new election was likely needed if early vote totals in Bladen County were leaked, but has since said that the state Board of Elections should certify the race and declare Mark Harris the winner.

Dallas Woodhouse: Executive director of the NC GOP, Woodhouse said in early December that the alleged election fraud in NC’s 9th District made him throw up and that there should likely be a new election. Woodhouse has since said, however, that the state Board of Elections should certify the race and declare Mark Harris the winner if it can’t be proven fraud changed the outcome.

Bladen County

Caitlyn Croom and Matthew Matthis: In 2016, they told state investigators that McCrae Dowless paid them $225, in two installments, to get voters to request absentee ballots, sign and witness the ballots, and bring the ballots back to him. Collecting ballots is illegal under state law.

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Jeff Smith: An acquaintance of McCrae Dowless, Smith had let Dowless use a vacant store for his campaign work during the primary, but said he kicked him out after learning Dowless was also working to help Sheriff Jim McVicker win re-election. Smith was also listed as the initial treasurer for Patriots for Progress, a PAC founded by Dowless implicated in a 2016 absentee ballot-tampering probe. Smith has told news outlets that Dowless used a crew of workers to collect absentee ballots from voters.

Jim McVicker: The Bladen County Sheriff, McVicker paid Dowless $8,800 and Red Dome Group $8,000 for the 2018 campaign for “get out to vote” efforts, records show.

Ray Britt: A Republican Bladen County commissioner and former member of the county’s election board. Mark Harris said Britt attended his first meeting with McCrae Dowless. Britt was also on a “sample ballot” of 2016 candidates Dowless allegedly told Croom and Matthis to “push” with voters.

Walter McDuffie: The Bladen County Republican Party chairman, Harris has said McDuffie attended the first meeting between him and McCrae Dowless.

Cheryl Kinlaw: A Bladen County woman who told WSOC-TV she was paid $100 by McCrae Dowless to collect ballots in 2018. She did it because she needed money for Christmas presents, reporter Joe Bruno said, and she turned the ballots over to Dowless.

Ginger Eason: A Bladen County woman who told WSOC-TV she was paid by McCrae Dowless to collect absentee ballots, and to talk about Mark Harris and Jim McVicker with voters. She told reporter Joe Bruno that she dropped off ballots with Dowless.

Kenneth Simmons: A Bladen County man who filed a sworn affidavit saying he saw McCrae Dowless with a big stack of absentee ballots during the 2018 primary. “While we were in Dublin attending a meeting of Republicans, we spoke with McCrae Dowless,” said Simmons in the affidavit, notarized in Robeson County. “During the conversation, we noticed that Mr. Dowless had in his possession a large number of absentee ballots. ... .He stated he had over 800 ballots in his possession.”

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Jens Lutz: The vice chairman of the Bladen County Board of Elections, Lutz resigned in early December. According to public records, Lutz and McCrae Dowless formed a business in 2014 called Politico Management Services. Lutz also served in recent years as chairman of the Bladen County Democratic Party. Days before the 2018 general election, he posted on his Facebook page, warning people not to turn over their ballots to third parties. In his December resignation letter, Lutz said “things have gotten way out of hand.”

“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.”

WBTV has reported that Lutz had phone contact with Josh Malcolm, a former member of the State Board of Elections and Ethics enforcement, before the election. A board spokesman has said that was not improper or unusual.

The Bladen County Improvement Association: A Democratic Party-aligned group that’s been active in Bladen for two decades. In 2016, McCrae Dowless filed a protest with the state elections board against the group over suspicions about a large number of write-in votes on mail-in absentee ballots. The elections board voted to dismiss the complaint. Workers for the BCIA were active again in 2018, helping voters request and fill out absentee ballots.

Datesha Montgomery, Emma Shipman, Lucy Young, Stacy Holcomb: Bladen County voters who have said they received absentee ballots they didn’t request, turned over their absentee ballots to people saying they came to collect them or experienced other irregularities.

Datesha Montgomery, 27, a voter in Elizabethtown in October, planned to vote absentee by mail but, before she could fill out the ballot, she got a knock on her door from someone who said they were going to take care of her ballot.

The investigators

Joshua Malcolm: A Robeson County Democrat, Malcolm was the member of the state Board of Elections who first publicly moved to stop certification of the 9th District race on Nov. 27. He told the board that he was “very familiar with unfortunate activities that have been happening down in my part of the state. And I am not going to turn a blind eye to what took place to the best of my understanding.”

He was appointed chairman of the board in December by Gov. Roy Cooper after Andy Penry, the former chair, resigned over allegations from Republicans that he’d written unacceptably partisan tweets about President Trump. The board was dissolved by a surprise court ruling from a three-judge panel in a separate case in late December, and a new board is not expected to be in place until the end of January.

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Lorrin Freeman: The Wake County District Attorney, 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 investigation, the probe now includes 2018 results as well. Freeman’s office became involved in January, after a referral from Jon David, the district attorney for Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties.

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Joan Fleming: The state Board of Elections’ lead investigator, Fleming has taken absentee ballots, envelopes and other evidence from Bladen County as part of the investigation. She met with Harris for about two hours in Raleigh in early January as part of the investigation.

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Kim Strach: Executive director of the Board of Elections, Strach also met with Harris in Raleigh during the probe. In 2017, Strach referred a previous case of alleged election fraud involving absentee ballots collected by Dowless to federal prosecutors.

“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 a letter about the evidence against Dowless. “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.”

It’s unclear why prosecutors never brought charges or followed up on that case.

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