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‘A troubled history’: Bladen County has faced five elections investigations since 2010

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This story was corrected on Dec. 7 at 2:07 p.m. See story for details.

The investigation into voting irregularities in the 2018 election in Bladen County is, at least, the fifth elections case since 2010 in the rural eastern North Carolina county.

“Bladen County has a troubled history of political groups exploiting the use of absentee ballots in an effort to skew support for a specific candidate or group of candidates,” wrote Jon David, district attorney for Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties, in a Jan. 26, 2018 letter to the State Bureau of Investigation’s interim assistant director.

“These groups package the anticipated ability to garner absentee ballots as a commodity to be brokered.”

Bladen County is at the center of an investigation into possible election fraud in the 9th Congressional District election, which has yet to be certified by North Carolina’s nine-member State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

A 2010 case, investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation and referred to the Attorney General’s Special Prosecutions Unit, was closed in 2013 without any criminal charges being filed, David told The News & Observer in an email.

Gov. Roy Cooper was attorney general at the time, but the Special Prosecutions Unit would have decided whether to bring charges.

In November 2016, the state board opened cases into three different groups in the county, according to a letter from David to the interim assistant director of the State Bureau of Investigation. The three cases are:

Possible absentee ballot fraud committed by Patriots for Progress IE PAC, a conservative group founded in 2014.

Possible absentee ballot fraud committed by the Bladen Improvement Association PAC, a Democrat-backed group.

Voter fraud allegations and possible false statements to affect election outcomes allegedly by McCrae Dowless, who worked as a contractor for Republican Mark Harris’ 2018 congressional campaign.

The state board has twice declined to certify results of North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District election, a race apparently won by Harris by 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready. The board has scheduled a hearing later this month to hear evidence about voting irregularities with absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties. It has also declined a county commissioners race and the race for soil and water conservation district supervisor.

The board has certified the Bladen County’s sheriff’s race.

Correction: An earlier version of this story should have said that the board of elections has certified the Bladen County sheriff’s race.

The board has issued subpoenas to the Harris campaign, to the campaign of Bladen County Sheriff Jim McVicker and to Red Dome Group, a consulting firm that Harris paid more than $411,000 to for campaign work, according to election board spokesman Patrick Gannon. Red Dome Group founder Andy Yates told The Charlotte Observer that his firm hired Dowless to work for Harris.

Harris received 437 mail-in absentee votes in Bladen County in his May Republican primary upset victory against incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger. Pittenger received 17 votes via mail-in absentee. In the general election, Harris won mail-in absentee votes 420 to McCready’s 258.

Leslie McCrae Dowless poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, NC on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com@newsobser

Dowless’ work in grassroots or get-out-the vote operations dates back to at least 2010. At the time, he was working for a Democrat, Harold (Butch) Pope, who defeated the incumbent district attorney, Rex Gore, in the primary. Pope received 195 absentee by mail votes to Gore’s 64 in Bladen County. Pope won by more than 2,100 votes overall.

In the general election, Pope ran against David. In Bladen County, Pope received 610 absentee by mail votes to 148 for David. David won the election by 4,043 votes overall. Pope paid Dowless $7,127 for get-out-the vote operations and expenses.

Patriots for Progress was founded in 2014, documents filed with the state board of elections show. In the initial filing, Jeff Smith was listed as the treasurer, and Cindy Brisson Lewis Smith was named the custodian of books. Neither responded to requests for comment Wednesday evening.

The group says on its Facebook page that it is a Bladen County super PAC with a mission “to help endorsed candidates win their elections.” The page does not name any of the backed candidates.

The PAC’s first donation, for $100, came from Landon Bordeaux, who later became president of the Bladen County GOP. Reached by phone, Bordeaux said he did not remember making the donation, but said he has known Smith since childhood.

“It’s a small town,” he said. “We grew up together.”

The documents show that an address used for years by the PAC belongs to Smith, and in 2014, Smith received a payment of $800 for rent and $160 for salaries. Smith could not be reached to respond to questions about Patriots for Progress.

In earlier telephone interviews, he confirmed that he’s been called to appear before the elections board, but he declined to get into details. He said he had not done anything wrong in supporting or opposing candidates for office and referred a reporter to lawsuits he had filed.

For a period of time, Dowless claimed to be president of the group.

A letter dated Jan. 22, 2016, declares to the state that Dowless is no longer a committee member. Cindy Lewis is named the new president.

The group is now defunct, with a status of “terminated” on the state elections board website. The last time a report was submitted was in 2016.

The Bladen County Improvement Association PAC has filed regular reports with the state board since 1996. The state Democratic Party has given money to the group in the past, including in 2018, according to state records.

The PAC pays individuals for get out the vote efforts. It paid Lola Wooten $65 in October. Wooten turned in 280 absentee ballot requests in Bladen County this fall, according to documents released by the state board. Dowless turned in 590. It is not illegal to gather absentee ballot requests and turn them in.

But it is illegal to collect voters’ actual absentee ballots, which some voters said both Dowless or those working for him and the Bladen County Improvement Project have done.

Datesha Montgomery, of Bladen County, told The Charlotte Observer on Wednesday that it’s not uncommon for individuals to go door to door to collect absentee ballots ahead of Election Day.

Montgomery is one of the many voters in Bladen who state investigators now suspect unwittingly turned her ballot over to an individual working for Dowless during the 2018 midterms. Montgomery filled out a sworn affidavit that was delivered by the Democratic Party to the state board.

But, she says, in years past, other people knocked on her door requesting her ballot. She identified one of those people to the Observer as someone who, public records show, was paid during previous elections by the Bladen County Improvement Association.

The difference, according to Montgomery, is that the Improvement Association accepted her absentee ballot sealed and already filled out. And, ultimately, the group filed the ballot with her votes to the county’s election board, Montgomery said.

This year was different. Montgomery said she gave her 2018 ballot to a woman she didn’t know but whom she assumed worked with the Improvement Association. At the time, she says, her ballot was incomplete and unsealed.

Later, she says, she was told by state election officials investigating Dowless that her absentee ballot was never filed.

Montgomery eventually voted in person on Election Day.

Dowless, the vice chairman of the Bladen County water and soil conservation board, filed a protest with the state board in 2016 against the Bladen County Improvement Association over suspicions about a large number of write-in votes on mail-in absentee ballots in the race, many of which had the same handwriting, The News & Observer reported at the time.

Dan Kane and David Raynor of The News & Observer contributed to this report.
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Carli Brosseau is a reporter at The News & Observer who often analyzes databases as part of her work. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.