A new election, criminal prosecutions and an ever-growing cast of characters: The 9th district election fraud scandal is far from over.
Since Republican Mark Harris called for a new election due to evidence of absentee ballot fraud committed by people working on behalf of his campaign, the former Charlotte pastor has dropped out of the new race and the political operative at the center of the scandal has been arrested. Now, a crowded field of Republicans is emerging to take on presumptive Democratic nominee Dan McCready in the election re-run.
Filing for the 9th Congressional District seat ended Friday, March 15. The primary is scheduled for May 14, and the general election would be on Sept. 10, a date that coincides with Charlotte’s municipal primaries. If no candidate wins more than 30 percent of the vote in the 9th district primary, a runoff election would be held Sept. 10, followed by a general election Nov. 5, which coincides with Charlotte’s municipal elections.
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Need to get caught up on who the most important people were at last month’s State Board of Elections hearing? Trying to keep track of who’s been charged with what, or where they are now? Read on for more details:
The Republican appeared to win by 905 votes on election night last year, before his apparent victory was tainted by allegations of a major absentee ballot-harvesting ring in Bladen County. Since the new election was ordered at last month’s hearing, Harris has taken himself out of the running, citing health problems and upcoming surgery.
The 52-year-old former pastor has endorsed Stony Rushing, a conservative Union County commissioner who’s drawn national attention for dressing as Boss Hogg (the villain in the “Dukes of Hazzard” series), in the upcoming primary.
Mark Harris’ oldest son, John Harris is an assistant U.S. attorney based in Raleigh. He testified during the State Board of Elections hearing that he had warned his father not to hire Bladen County operative McCrae Dowless because he believed Dowless was collecting absentee ballots — a felony in North Carolina.
“I told him (Mark Harris) in the phone call I thought they were illegally collecting ballots,” John Harris testified. He also emailed his parents to say the same thing, and send them the part of North Carolina law that makes collecting absentee ballots a felony.
“The key thing that I am fairly certain they do that is illegal is that they collect the completed absentee ballots and mail them all at once,” John Harris wrote in the 2017 email.
His testimony contradicted public statements from Mark Harris that no one had warned him about Dowless prior to his decision to hire Dowless for the 2018 race.
Leslie McCrae Dowless
During the election board hearing, several people testified that longtime political operative Dowless paid them to collect absentee ballots.
Dowless, 63, was arrested and charged with three counts of felony obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and two counts of possession of an absentee ballot.
The indictment from Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Dowless’ actions “served to undermine the integrity of the absentee ballot process and the public’s confidence in the outcome of the electoral process.”
But those charges only cover the 2016 elections and 2018 primary. The investigation into the 2018 general election is ongoing and could result in more charges.
The Wake County district attorney, Freeman has led the investigation into Dowless’ alleged ballot ring. She has been in contact with the State Board of Elections about its investigation, and said after Dowless was charged that more indictments are possible.
“It’s fair to assume that evidence related to the general election of 2018 will lead to additional charges of additional people,” Freeman told the Observer. “The focus of our investigation has been not only what the absentee ballot operation was but who was responsible for funding it and their level of knowledge (about it) . . . We’ll follow the evidence wherever that leads us.”
US DOJ Public Integrity Section
Freeman, the Wake County DA, isn’t the only party investigating the 9th district. The Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section, which prosecutes corrupt public figures and election law violations, has issued subpoenas to Harris, the State Board of Elections, and other parties in the case.
The Justice Department’s involvement could widen the scope of the probe. It also raises the legal stakes for any defendant, who could potentially face state and federal charges.
“The federal government is doing its due diligence because this is a matter of significant public interest,” said Richard Myers, a UNC law professor and former federal prosecutor. “(But) if you are a potential defendant, it won’t make you comfortable.”
Caitlyn Croom, Matthew Mathis, Tonia Gordon and Rebecca Thompson
The four other Bladen County residents were charged in connection with Dowless’ alleged ballot-harvesting group. According to indictments, they conspired to collect absentee ballots during the 2016 elections and 2018 primary.
Each faces one count of felony conspiracy to obstruct justice and one count of possession of absentee ballot, while Mathis faces the additional charge of falsely signing the voter certification on an absentee ballot.
All four have since been arrested. Court records show Mathis has pending drug possession charges in Cumberland County, while Gordon has pending charges in Bladen County related to driving without a valid license. In 2002, Gordon was found guilty of criminal contempt, court records show. Thompson was found guilty of injury to personal property in 2005, according to court records.
Dowless’ former daughter-in-law, Lisa Britt testified during the State Board of Elections hearing that he paid her to collect absentee ballots. She also testified that she and others working for Dowless filled in votes on unsealed absentee ballots they collected, though not for Mark Harris.
She said she was initially paid $125 per 50 ballots, but that changed to a $200 weekly flat rate once they realized it was harder than anticipated to convince people to hand over their ballots. She said she also falsely signed absentee ballots as a witness.
Britt testified that after the investigation began, Dowless gathered her and other election workers he’d employed at his Bladen County house.
“As long as we all stick together we’ll all be fine, because they don’t have anything on us,” she said Dowless told them.
Britt has not been charged in connection with the case.
Hendrix testified that she met Dowless when she needed a ride to her job at Hardee’s.
“I needed a ride to work that day ... Just from there, he resembled my dad, so much that I just connected with him,” she said. Hendrix testified that she collected ballots for him, and was paid, though not specifically by the number of ballots.
“He would just give me money for gas and if I needed anything else,” she said.
Hendrix is mentioned in one of the indictments, but has not been charged in connection with the case.
The owner of Cornelius-based Red Dome Group, Yates testified that he handled payments to Dowless while acting as Mark Harris’s main consultant in the 2018 election. He said the arrangement had already been set up by Harris, and that Dowless didn’t provide any receipts or other documentation to back up his requests for payments.
Yates said that Dowless told them he was paying people to collect and turn in absentee ballot requests — which is legal — but that Dowless said he wasn’t collecting absentee ballots themselves, which is a felony.
He also said he had not conducted a full background check on Dowless, only Googled him with his name misspelled.
“I Googled McCrae Dowless,” Yates testified under cross-examination. “At the time I didn’t know his first name was Leslie.”
Harris had told Yates that Dowless had a “minor” criminal issue in the early 1990s, possibly stemming from a divorce, Yates testified.
“That (Google search) showed what I believed to be three misdemeanor charges from 20 years ago,” Yates said. He said he would have objected to Harris hiring Dowless to do get-out-the-vote efforts if he was aware of the fraud conviction that briefly sent Dowless to prison in the early 1990s.
The Republican candidates
Nine Republican candidates have filed to run for the vacant 9th district seat. The declared candidates include former Mecklenburg County commissioner and Marine Corps veteran Matthew Ridenhour, Union County commissioner and gun shop owner Rushing, Fayetteville medical device sales manager Stevie Rivenbark, Raleigh attorney Chris Anglin, Mecklenburg state Sen. Dan Bishop, former state legislator Fern Shubert, Katie Day, Gary Dunn, a perennial candidate from Matthews who ran for Charlotte mayor in 2017 and Leigh Brown, a Realtor from Harrisburg.
Other possible candidates took themselves out of the running: Former state Sen. Tommy Tucker and former Fayetteville Mayor Nat Robertson, former Charlotte City Council member Kenny Smith, Union County GOP Chairman Dan Barry and former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory. Former Rep. Robert Pittenger, the incumbent, had already declined to run again.