We knew about possible NC ballot fraud in ’16. Why didn’t we stop it?

Who is Leslie McCrae Dowless?

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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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.

Potentially illegal absentee ballot activities in Bladen County should never have affected the 2018 congressional election.

The allegations were public knowledge — and national news — two years before, but a breakdown in election law enforcement left the matter unresolved.

The state elections board received complaints in 2016 that Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless was paying people to collect voters’ absentee ballots and give them to him. That’s the central allegation against Dowless in 2018 as he worked for Republican Mark Harris’ congressional campaign.

If true, that’s illegal: Voters must mail in or deliver their ballots themselves, unless they have a disability that requires someone else to assist them. Elections board investigators looked into the issue, but the state board only ruled on a complaint that Dowless filed against another group. Dowless’ complaint was backed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign, as McCrory sought to find fraudulent ballots that might overturn his loss.

The state elections board ultimately dismissed that complaint, determining that what occurred did not affect the outcome of the election. The board turned hundreds of pages of investigatory findings over to federal prosecutors — and that’s where the safeguards broke down.

North Carolina’s elections board investigates crimes but can’t charge people with crimes. Any evidence its investigators gather about illegal election or campaign activities must be forwarded to a prosecutor.

That put the U.S. Attorney’s office for North Carolina’s eastern district in charge. Initially that was acting U.S. Attorney John Bruce until Trump appointee Robert Higdon took over in the fall of 2017.

Higdon either didn’t complete the investigation before the 2018 midterms, or he declined to press criminal charges against anyone in Bladen. He was responsible for making sure any bad actors from the 2016 couldn’t damage our democracy in 2018, and he failed.

Instead of pursuing a case that could involve hundreds of fraudulent ballots, Higdon focused on non-citizen voters — and found a grand total of 19 of them, who were charged in August.

It’s time we moved elections law enforcement out of the slow and secretive federal prosecutor’s office. North Carolina has a special agency just to handle alcohol-related crimes, so why can’t we have a law enforcement agency devoted to election matters?

To stop election fraudsters, the state elections agency needs more investigators, and it needs the power to make arrests. It needs the resources to deploy election monitors to watch over local officials and polls in known trouble spots like Bladen and Robeson counties.

Those changes would require support from the legislature. Lawmakers haven’t effectively tackled the absentee ballot fraud issue. They did agree to a suggestion to require a photocopy of an absentee voter’s ID, but ballot harvesters could easily just use a portable copy machine to get that while visiting the voter’s home.

Stopping election fraud will require Republicans and Democrats to put aside their partisan hackery when credible allegations surface. While the current reports indicate that fraud may have affected both the primary and the general election, some Democrats are opposing a do-over primary in hopes of giving their candidate an advantage. They want a rematch against a politically damaged Mark Harris, not a more viable Republican.

Republicans, meanwhile, are struggling to find the right response to alleged misdeeds on their side. Party leaders have waffled between admitting a new election could be the right solution, bashing elections board members for bringing up the topic, and continuing to cheer for Harris.

Having a secure, fair democratic process is far more important than who wins any single election. It’s time for our state’s political leaders to respect that, act like adults, and ensure that the next election is fraud-free.

Colin Campbell, editor of the Insider State Government News Service, is at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.