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Documents: Federal prosecutors knew of Bladen County voting allegations, but took no action

[1]
Excerpt of report prepared by state elections officials

Voting rights advocates say GOP priorities drove Trump appointee to ignore allegations, focus resources elsewhere

The State Board of Elections compiled evidence and interviews detailing a systematic ballot fraud operation in Bladen County two years ago, well before the current controversy that seems likely to force a new election in the 9th Congressional District race.

The board forwarded their information and a detailed summary to state and federal prosecutors, according to 278 pages on multiple investigations released by the state board this week [2].

No prosecutions resulted.

Instead McCrae Dowless – a convicted felon, influential political operative and Bladen County elected official – was allowed to expand the for-profit ballot “harvesting” operation that is now making national headlines.

It was not until pastor Mark Harris narrowly bested incumbent Rep. Robert Pittinger [3] in the May Republican primary and then appeared to defeat Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes [4] in the November general election that the extent of Dowless’ operation was exposed.

The state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement refused to certify the election, despite continued pressure from the state Republican Party to do so. Calls have continued to mount for a new election [5]. The board has scheduled a public evidentiary hearing [6] on the matter for January 11.

But some of the state’s most prominent election watchdogs say it should never have gotten to this point.

Evidence v. political will

Allison Riggs is senior attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice [7], an organization that has taken a lead role in representing disenfranchised voters in lawsuits that have repeatedly led to laws and redistricting maps being struck down in court.

The board’s recent release, which documents just what it knew and communicated to prosecutors about Dowless’ operation, showcases just how much politics have come to trump evidence in the way such cases are handled, she said.

“This is a huge failure of our criminal justice system to protect voters,” said Riggs. “Since 2016 they have had information about criminal activity affecting thousands of votes and instead the U.S. Attorney’s office has concentrated on 19 non-citizens who made a mistake in voting [8]and gotten one plea where he said, ‘I made a mistake. I thought I was good to go.’”

Bob Hall, former executive director of Democracy NC, is still active in investigating and filing complaints related to ethics and elections.

[9]
U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon

He said Robert Higdon, appointed last year by President Donald Trump to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, has followed the Republican Party line on election fraud. That means pursuing cases that advance the GOP narrative of supposedly rampant voter fraud by non-citizens and convicted felons, Hall said, while essentially ignoring much more complicated and statistically prevalent fraud – like absentee ballot tampering.

“If the election rigging operation in Bladen County looked like it involved a group of non-citizens voting, Higdon would have deployed the FBI in a heartbeat,” Hall said. “Imagine what his office would have done if he had reports of white conservative voters being victimized by a multi-year ballot stealing operation led by Black operatives. Instead, the reports his office received from the State Board of Elections pointed to the reverse scenario, which wasn’t Higdon’s priority and why the FBI only recently got involved.”

Earlier this year Higdon’s office issued subpoenas on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to the North Carolina elections board and more than 40 county boards in the eastern third of the state. The move led voting rights advocates to ask why federal investigators and prosecutors seemed to be concentrating so heavily on non-citizens when so much evidence of absentee ballot fraud had been served up for years by the state board of elections.

“From what I’ve picked up, the political agenda of the U.S. Attorney’s office is clear – their priority is from Washington down,” said Hall. “They have more of a political agenda as to what is going to take priority. There have been efforts to get them involved, to get the FBI involved, in all of this much earlier.”

There are 100 counties in North Carolina. The state board of elections currently has four investigators to look into irregularities reported across the state in nearly every election. A fifth investigative position exists but is currently unfilled, a board spokesman confirmed this week.

“Federal prosecutors really have more resources and have better tools to investigate crimes in rural areas where everybody knows everybody and people are not ashamed,” Hall said. “The bad guys will just lie to investigators from the board of elections. They’re not intimidating enough to some of these characters. You really need the resources of the US Attorney’s office and the FBI to put the pressure on some of the lower level people to get them to spill the beans on how this operation works and flip on the bigger fish.”

But the political will has to be there, Hall said – especially in complicated cases like the one in the 9th District, where there are many moving pieces, multiple potential offenders and a long history of apparent violations.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get that smoking gun in some cases,” Hall said. “So I think they look at the easier thing – somebody who was on probation and they didn’t realize they couldn’t vote and they tried to. They pursue that, they prosecute that, they make a big deal out of that.”

History repeating

Last month, Joshua Malcolm, a Robeson County Democrat and member of the state elections board recently appointed chairman, said he was very familiar with the history of “unfortunate activities” in his part of the state.

“I am not going to turn a blind eye to what took place, to the best of my understanding which has been ongoing for a number of years, that has repeatedly been referred to the United States attorney and the district attorneys for them to take action and clean it up,” Malcolm said to the board at its Nov. 27 meeting. “In my opinion those things have not taken place.”

Multiple people have now come forward to say, in interviews and sworn affidavits, that they were paid by Dowless and his associates to collect masses of absentee ballots in the district. That’s  illegal because of concerns of tampering. A close race could be turned by either forging unsealed ballots or simply failing to turn in enough of one candidate’s mail-in ballots to give another a huge advantage among those voting absentee.

Harris admits he hired Dowless, who worked closely with Red Dome Group [10], the political consulting firm to which Harris paid $428,908 for work in the primary and general elections. But Harris said he had no idea that Dowless may have done something illegal and Dowless himself has, through an attorney, denied any of his work broke the law.

The numbers, and Dowless’ documented history, have raised suspicions that not everything in the election was strictly in-bounds.

Seven percent of the ballots cast in Bladen County were absentee mail-in ballots – the highest percentage of any the eight counties that make up the 9th District.

In the GOP primary, Harris won 96 percent of Bladen County’s mail-in ballots – an extraordinary showing against the Republican incumbent.

In the general election Harris took 61 percent of the county’s mail-in absentee vote in a race where only 19 percent of the mail-in ballots came from registered Republicans.

In order for that to happen, Harris would have to have gotten all of the mail-in absentee votes of the 19 percent of registered Republicans, nearly all of the unaffiliated voters who used that method and some of the Democrats who voted that way as well.

More than 3,400 of the mail-in absentee ballots requested by voters in the 9th District were reported unreturned, according to the state board of elections. Most of those were in Bladen and Robeson counties and can be tied to precincts with high percentages of minority voters.

It’s a complex scheme and can be difficult for the average person to understand, but for investigators and the state board, it sounded awfully familiar.

That’s because Bladen County has faced at least five investigations into this sort of fraud since 2010. Indeed, in 2016, the board detailed its findings about Dowless’ operation in the starkest possible terms when it referred his case to the U.S. Attorney.

“The interviews led to information strongly suggesting that Leslie McCrae Dowless, Jr. (aka “Mccrae Dowless”), who is associated with the Patriots for Progress IE PAC, and who is the recently elected candidate for Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor in Bladen County, was paying certain individuals to solicit absentee request forms and to collect absentee ballots from Bladen County voters,” the board’s 2016 report [2]read.

“In doing so, workers employed by Dowless were required to hand-carry the ballots to Dowless in order to be paid,” the report read. “Dowless allegedly instructed his workers to ‘push’ votes for certain candidates while meeting with voters. [Possession of an absentee ballot for delivery to a voter or for return to a county board of elections by anyone other-than the voter, the voter’s near relative or the voters verifiable legal guardian is a Class I Felony under NCGS 163-226.3{a)(6).]”

The report detailed interviews with Caitlyn Croom and Matthew Matthis, a couple who said they were paid by Dowless first to collect absentee ballots from voters and then to collect and deliver them to him. Dowless denied this to investigators and the board.

He offered $225 for 20 collected ballots, according to the couple. They also told investigators Dowless attempted to interfere with the investigation into his activities by instructing them to lie about how the operation worked and deny anything illegal had taken place.

Public pressure requires public information

Riggs, the attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the revelations in the documents released by the board of elections this week are shocking, essentially showing that Dowless’ documented vote harvesting scheme was allowed to thrive and grow while federal prosecutors were aware and made no indictments.

But it’s also shocking that it took this long to come out, Riggs said.

“I think they did the right thing in referring it up to prosecutors, but they [state elections officials] can do a lot more to make information like this available and update the public on these referrals,” Riggs said.

“If there’s no movement they could do more to make sure the public is aware they haven’t heard back from state or federal prosecutors,” Riggs said. “If we had this information we could have been doing some work and bringing some pressure, if we’d been aware the state and federal prosecutors had all of this and were dropping the ball.”

In the harsh light of the recent media attention the board has released a trove of information on current and past investigations into ballot fraud investigations in the district. But it shouldn’t take a questionable congressional race turning into a media spectacle to get the board to be that transparent, Riggs said.

“I will say I’m sad it came to this, but I’m heartened that it does seem like the state board are doing the right thing by releasing some of this stuff,” Riggs said. “By being more transparent it allows groups like mine and others to bring public pressure. You have to have the information to do that.”

Unfortunately, Riggs said, current legislation could make the process of investigations even more opaque to the public.

As Policy Watch reported [11] this week, House Bill 1029 [12], now awaiting a signature or veto from Gov. Roy Cooper,, would make all State Board of Elections investigations confidential, effectively shutting the door to any public scrutiny, particularly when it comes to campaign finance violations.

The bill would also limit who could file a complaint with the state board, restrict investigators in how far back they could look at allegations and require second investigations before evidence could be turned over to a prosecutor.

“That is going to make it much harder to investigate and prosecute things like this, for complaints to be heard, everything,” Riggs said.

“What we’re seeing now in the 9th District isn’t voter fraud,” Riggs said. “The voters haven’t done anything wrong. It’s vote theft. We have the laws on the books to deal with it. We don’t need new laws making it harder.”