A North Carolina congressional candidate, Republican Mark Harris, directed the hiring of a campaign aide now at the center of an election-fraud investigation, according to three individuals familiar with the campaign, despite warnings that the operative may have used questionable tactics to deliver votes.
Harris sought out the operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, after losing a 2016 election in which Dowless had helped one of Harris’ opponents win an overwhelming share of the mail-in vote in a key county.
State and local investigators say that whether Harris knew that his campaign may have engaged in improper tactics has become a focus of the expanding probes into whether election irregularities affected the 9th District election, in which Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes.
That question is also roiling the state Republican Party, whose leaders had rallied around Harris, a 52-year-old evangelical pastor from the suburbs of Charlotte. Party leaders are now backing away from Harris and trying to limit the fallout of a scandal that has delayed certification of the last undecided federal contest of the 2018 election cycle.
The North Carolina elections board has issued subpoenas to the Harris campaign and its general consultant, Red Dome Group. In addition, the Wake County district attorney’s office in Raleigh, the State Bureau of Investigation, the FBI and federal prosecutors are examining voting irregularities in the 9th District.
Dowless, 62, has declined multiple requests for interviews. Neither Todd Johnson, the primary candidate who had previously used Dowless’ services, nor his political consultant, Zach Almond, could be reached for comment.
Harris and Andy Yates of Red Dome, Harris’ campaign consultant, confirmed in statements last week that Dowless was paid for a field effort but said they were not aware of any illegal activity.
“I was absolutely unaware of any wrongdoing,” Harris said in a video released Dec. 7. Harris attorney John Branch declined to comment for this article.
Harris was warned about possible fraud on primary day in June 2016, during his first bid for the 9th District seat, according to people familiar with the conversation.
The incumbent congressman and winner of the primary had received just one mail-in vote in rural Bladen County. Harris, who came in second place, had won four. Johnson, the last-place contender, meanwhile, had received nearly all of them — 221.
The only explanation, advisors told Harris that night in Charlotte, was that something shady had occurred on that third-place campaign, according to the people.
A year later, they said, when Harris resolved to run for Congress again, the candidate personally directed the hiring of Dowless, an adept field operative and Bladen County native who had helped deliver that unusual result in 2016.
Harris’ wife, Beth Harris, said in a text message Thursday: “We actually don’t recall any ‘aide’ saying anything on election night” of 2016. She added: “It was a crazy night where we were up and then went down.”
One person said Harris’ decision to hire Dowless stemmed partly from his realization that he would have defeated Rep. Robert Pittenger if he’d won the mail-in vote by as large a margin as third-place contender Johnson had.
Witnesses in interviews and affidavits say Dowless’ allegedly fraudulent operation on Harris’ behalf this year involved collecting incomplete and unsealed ballots, an illegal practice. Investigators are also examining whether Dowless or those working for him illegally discarded ballots.
Because Dowless was paid by Red Dome, which in turn billed the Harris campaign, the consulting firm is also under scrutiny.
Harris decided to hire Dowless before he brought on Red Dome in June 2017, according to three people familiar with early campaign deliberations. And he decided to hire him despite warnings about Dowless’ criminal record and Dowless’ own public testimony describing questionable election tactics.
Around the same time in the spring of 2017, he also introduced Dowless to Pete Givens, one of Harris’ parishioners and a candidate for Charlotte City Council that year.
Givens was running a long-shot bid as a Republican in a heavily Democratic district with historically low turnout. “How do we get 75,000 people who never show up off their rears?” Givens wondered at the time, he said in an interview. Harris drove Givens to meet Dowless, and Givens ended up hiring him, paying him $800 in May 2017.
Givens said he didn’t know of any wrongdoing and that he believes “there’s no way that Mark Harris would have known that either.”
Walter McDuffie, the chairman of the Bladen County Republican Party, told the Washington Post that he warned the Harris campaign about Dowless’ criminal record, which includes felony convictions for fraud and perjury and a misdemeanor charge for passing a worthless check in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Harris also interacted regularly with Dowless during the 2018 primary campaign, according to Jeff Smith, a former Dowless associate who gave him office space during the spring primary and saw him nearly daily. Smith told the Post that Dowless spoke often of talking to Harris by telephone about the mail-in absentee-ballot program. Much like Johnson in 2016, Harris defeated Pittenger in the primary with an overwhelming performance among mail-in voters in Bladen, which he won 437-17.
Details of Dowless’ absentee-ballot operation came to light publicly in December 2016, when he told the state elections board that his get-out-the-vote operation included collecting absentee ballots.
Dowless had been asked to testify about allegations he had leveled against an African American group that mostly supports Democratic candidates.
But over a five-hour hearing, the board interrogated him about his own operation. He described paid staffers collecting mail-in ballots, though he said he told the staffers to return the ballots to the voters. Under North Carolina law, it is illegal to tamper with or collect someone else’s ballot.
Two members of the board at the time said in interviews this week that the hearing raised red flags about absentee-ballot activities in Bladen County. “It all stunk to high heaven,” said one member at the time, James Baker, a Republican and former Superior Court judge.
Another elections board member at the 2016 hearing, Democrat Maja Kricker, said she concluded from Dowless’ testimony that he was operating outside the law, adding that she thinks the Harris campaign should have known about his practices.
“Apparently either the Harris campaign or Mark Harris never vetted him,” she said.
The GOP-controlled board unanimously referred the testimony to state and federal investigators, but no indictments or public reports were issued. Lorrin Freeman, the Wake County district attorney, said an investigation sparked then now includes the 2018 election.
Freeman said her office is also examining whether anyone inside the Bladen County Board of Elections committed fraud.
Dowless’ testimony two years ago raised questions about his relationship with former Bladen County Elections Director Cynthia Shaw, who left her job in November ahead of her Jan. 1 scheduled retirement date.
Dowless told the elections board that Shaw knew that his get-out-the-vote crew put their initials on the corner of the absentee ballot request forms when they turned them in “so if there is a problem you know who to contact,” Dowless said.
Election officials are supposed to reach out directly to voters who need to correct any omissions or discrepancies regarding their absentee ballot request forms. Multiple attempts to reach Shaw were unsuccessful.
Investigators are also examining evidence published by the state elections board last week that the county board improperly printed the results of early in-person voting three days before Election Day. They are looking into whether the information was improperly shared with a campaign.
State law prohibits early-vote results from being drawn from tabulation machines until after 5 p.m. on election day to protect the security of the results and prevent campaigns from gaining an unfair advantage and redeploying resources in the final days.
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, told reporters this week that if the early-vote results were prematurely shared, “that is a fundamental violation of the sanctity of fair elections,” and that a new election would have to be called.
The investigations into the 2018 vote in the 9th District are putting the GOP on the defensive at a time when Republican lawmakers in North Carolina and around the country have passed voter ID laws and other restrictions they said would crack down on voting fraud.
On Wednesday, the North Carolina Legislature passed a bill requiring a new primary if the state elections board orders a new election in the 9th District — allowing Republicans to replace Harris on the ballot. It was the latest sign of state Republicans backing away from their earlier demands that the state board immediately certify Harris as the winner.
The state board declined to do that last month, launching an investigation instead and planning to hold a hearing by Dec. 21. The board issued a statement this week saying investigators may need more time before a hearing can be called.