N.C. race for House re­mains in limbo

State of­fi­cials de­cline to cer­tify a win­ner, widen­ing a probe into al­leged ab­sen­tee bal­lot ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Jenny Jarvie

BLADEN COUNTY, N.C. — When a woman with bleached-blond hair and tat­tooed arms knocked on Date­sha Montgomery’s front door, telling her she was col­lect­ing mail-in ab­sen­tee bal­lots, the stay-ath­ome mom did not ask too many ques­tions.

Montgomery had not yet filled out her bal­lot, so she grabbed a pen and started go­ing through the can­di­dates. The 27-year-old had only made se­lec­tions in two races when the woman be­came fid­gety, say­ing she was run­ning late for a Bi­ble study class.

“I asked her, ‘Do I need to fill the rest of it out?’ ” Montgomery said. “She told me, no — the rest wasn’t im­por­tant. She would send it off for me.”

It wasn’t un­til just be­fore elec­tion day that she re­al­ized her bal­lot was never turned in.

A month af­ter the Nov. 6 gen­eral elec­tion, North Carolina’s 9th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict race is still in limbo as state elec­tion of­fi­cials widen an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­le­ga­tions of ab­sen­tee bal­lot ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in sev­eral ru­ral coun­ties. Last week, the state’s board of elec­tions de­clined to cer­tify the elec­tion re­sults that showed con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can and for­mer Bap­tist preacher Mark Har­ris cling­ing to a 905-vote lead. In­stead, the board an­nounced

it would hold a pub­lic hear­ing to ex­plore claims of fraud and ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in what could well be­come the most sig­nif­i­cant case of al­leged elec­toral fraud in the U.S. in decades.

Much of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the vote has fo­cused on Bladen County, a mostly ru­ral area of about 33,000 res­i­dents that had the state’s high­est rate of ab­sen­tee bal­lot re­quests, more than dou­ble the rate in most coun­ties.

Gin­ger Ea­son, a 45-yearold Bladen­boro res­i­dent, said she was given a printed list of names by a Repub­li­can po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant and paid about $75 to col­lect around 50 com­pleted ab­sen­tee bal­lots a week.

Ea­son said she worked for the con­sul­tant on and off for about two months, knock­ing on doors across the county and then drop­ping bal­lots off to the con­sul­tant at an of­fice in a squat brick build­ing next to a hard­ware store at the in­ter­sec­tion of two high­ways.

“I picked them up and car­ried them to him,” Ea­son said. “What he done af­ter that, I don’t know.”

Ea­son es­ti­mates she col­lected about 100 bal­lots, but is listed as a wit­ness on just 28.

An­other woman, Ch­eryl Kin­law, 46, said she worked for the same con­sul­tant for seven or eight days and was paid $100 plus gas money. Af­ter driving around the county pick­ing up ab­sen­tee bal­lots, she said, she would hand them to the con­sul­tant, who would add them to stacks of bal­lots on his desk.

“I feel sick to my stom­ach,” Kin­law said Tues­day as she took a drag of an L&M cig­a­rette out­side her mo­bile home in Bladen­boro. “I feel duped. We had no idea it was il­le­gal. He’d been do­ing that for years and years. We didn’t think noth­ing of it!”

Both iden­ti­fied the con­sul­tant as Les­lie McCrae Dow­less, an in­de­pen­dent po­lit­i­cal con­trac­tor with a crim­i­nal record who has worked on a long list of lo­cal and state cam­paigns over the last decade. Dow­less was hired by the Har­ris cam­paign through Red Dome Group, a right-lean­ing po­lit­i­cal con­sult­ing firm.

Ac­cord­ing to wit­nesses and sworn af­fi­davits filed with elec­tion of­fi­cials, Dow­less led a team that went door-to-door col­lect­ing ab­sen­tee bal­lots from res­i­dents — a prac­tice known as “har­vest­ing.” It’s a vi­o­la­tion of state law in North Carolina, where only a rel­a­tive or le­gal guardian can as­sist a voter with an ab­sen­tee bal­lott. Dow­less per­son­ally turned in 592 of the 1,341 ab­sen­tee bal­lots re­quested in Bladen County.

Har­ris won more than 60% of the submitted ab­sen­tee bal­lots in the county, even though Repub­li­cans con­sti­tuted only 19% of the vot­ers who filed ab­sen­tee bal­lots. An un­usu­ally large pro­por­tion of re­quested ab­sen­tee bal­lots — 40% — were never re­turned. In neigh­bor­ing Robe­son County, 62% were never handed in.

Dow­less, 62, cur­rently serves as board vice chair­man for the Bladen County Soil and Water Con­ver­sa­tion Dis­trict. Ac­cord­ing to cam­paign fi­nance re­ports listed by the State Board of Elec­tions and Ethics En­force­ment, a string of Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can can­di­dates over the years — in­clud­ing Harold “Butch” Pope, who ran an un­suc­cess­ful cam­paign for dis­trict at­tor­ney of Bladen County, and Wil­liam D. Bris­son, a Repub­li­can state House mem­ber — have paid Dow­less for “get out the vote” work.

Dow­less has a crim­i­nal record as well, with a string of mis­de­meanor con­vic­tions for writ­ing bad checks and fail­ing to pay taxes, as well as a con­vic­tion for felony per­jury and in­sur­ance fraud.

In 1991, the Fayet­teville Ob­server re­ported that Dow­less and his wife, Sandra, were ac­cused of tak­ing out a life in­sur­ance pol­icy on a 24-year-old em­ployee who died in a car ac­ci­dent, forg­ing his sig­na­ture af­ter his death, back-dat­ing it, and col­lect­ing more than $163,000 from the death. Dow­less served more than six months of a two-year prison sen­tence.

In 2016, Dow­less protested a high vol­ume of write-ins in a race he ul­ti­mately won for soil and water dis­trict su­per­vi­sor. But in a sub­se­quent hear­ing with state elec­tion of­fi­cials, they turned the fo­cus on him.

While Dow­less ad­mit­ted he paid peo­ple about $20 a day to ob­tain ab­sen­tee bal­lot re­quest forms and turn them in, he said he did not look at bal­lots or tam­per with votes. The State Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion and the Wake County dis­trict at­tor­ney are con­duct­ing a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into vot­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in that elec­tion.

Reached out­side his mod­est one-story brick ranch home in Bladen­boro this week, Dow­less de­clined to com­ment. Red Dome Group did not re­spond to re­peated calls and emails.

Har­ris, mean­while, has been adamant that he sup­ports any in­ves­ti­ga­tion into po­ten­tial voter fraud but doesn’t be­lieve the out­come of the elec­tion will change.

“Make no mis­take, I sup­port any ef­forts to in­ves­ti­gate al­le­ga­tions of ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties and/or voter fraud, as long as it is fair and fo­cuses on all po­lit­i­cal par­ties,” he said in a tweet. “There is ab­so­lutely no pub­lic ev­i­dence that there are enough bal­lots in ques­tion to af­fect the out­come of this race.”

The elec­tion con­tro­versy puts Repub­li­cans in this con­ser­va­tive South­ern state in an awk­ward po­si­tion. Af­ter years of rail­ing against the specter of voter fraud, push­ing for strin­gent voter laws that crit­ics said dis­pro­por­tion­ately bur­den African Amer­i­can and Latino vot­ers, they now face the prospect that one of their own may be em­broiled in a ma­jor case deal­ing with elec­toral ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties.

Since the gen­eral elec­tion, Repub­li­cans have re­peat­edly urged the state elec­tions board to cer­tify Har­ris’ win, ar­gu­ing that any ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in ab­sen­tee vot­ing do not ap­pear to be wide­spread enough to al­ter the out­come of the race.

“We’re con­cerned some bad ac­tors may have done some bad things,” said Dal­las Wood­house, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the North Carolina Repub­li­can Party. “How­ever, you can’t wipe away the votes of over 286,000 peo­ple who cast votes legally.”

For Wood­house, the race poses two dis­tinct ques­tions: Did il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity oc­cur? Did that ac­tiv­ity change the out­come of the race or have a sub­stan­tial like­li­hood of chang­ing the race? While il­le­gal ac­tions should be pros­e­cuted, he ar­gued, they should not au­to­mat­i­cally delay cer­ti­fy­ing the elec­tion.

A spe­cial elec­tion for the 9th Dis­trict race, Wood­house said, would likely only at­tract about 10-15% of the res­i­dents who voted in the gen­eral elec­tion.

“Over 200,000 peo­ple would end up hav­ing their legally cast votes elim­i­nated,” he said. “They would be dis­en­fran­chised.”

Yet the prospect of Har­ris en­ter­ing the U.S. House any­time soon looks slim. Even if North Carolina cer­ti­fies the elec­tion, the House is the fi­nal judge on the qual­i­fi­ca­tions of its mem­bers.

On Tues­day, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), ex­pected to be the new House ma­jor­ity leader, raised the prospect that Democrats could refuse to seat Har­ris. And if Democrats were to chal­lenge Har­ris’ elec­tion, the House Ad­min­is­tra­tion Com­mit­tee would be charged with con­duct­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that might take months. Ul­ti­mately, the House could or­der a new elec­tion.

Across the 9th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict, more than 3,400 re­quested ab­sen­tee bal­lots were not re­turned. While some res­i­dents who re­quested bal­lots may have just de­cided not to sub­mit them, or voted in per­son in­stead, oth­ers — like Montgomery and Jeneva Le­gions — handed over their bal­lots to peo­ple who knocked on their door.

In the Vil­lage Oak pub­lic hous­ing com­plex in Bladen­boro, Le­gions, a 30-yearold cashier at a bar­gain store, said she gave her bal­lot to a group of women who walked door-to-door around her neigh­bor­hood in Oc­to­ber.

“Are you Jeneva?” a woman asked her. “I’ve come to pick up the bal­lots.”

“I just gave it to her,” Le­gions said. “I thought she worked for the county.”

An un­af­fil­i­ated voter who typ­i­cally votes a straight Demo­cratic ticket, Le­gions even­tu­ally found out her bal­lot was never re­ceived.

“Turns out I didn’t vote for nobody,” she said.

Montgomery, the stayat-home mom, was luck­ier — Demo­cratic vol­un­teers in­formed her be­fore elec­tion day that her mail-in bal­lot had not been en­tered into the sys­tem, so she was able to can­cel it and cast her vote in per­son.

She still has no idea what hap­pened to her mail-in bal­lot.

“My trust is all messed up,” she said. “What did she do with my vote? Did she just throw it out?”

‘I asked her, “Do I need to fill the rest of it out?” She told me, no — the rest wasn’t im­por­tant. She would send it off for me.’ — DATE­SHA MONTGOMERY, ru­ral North Carolina voter, on the stranger who picked up her in­com­plete ab­sen­tee bal­lot

Chuck Burton As­so­ci­ated Press

D E M O C R AT Dan McCready, a for­mer U.S. Marine, con­ceded North Carolina’s 9th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict race when his GOP ri­val had a 905-vote lead.

David T. Foster III Char­lotte Ob­server

REPUB­LI­CAN Mark Har­ris, McCready’s ri­val for the House seat, hasn’t been cer­ti­fied as the win­ner; elec­tion of­fi­cials in­stead plan a hear­ing on ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties.

Jenny Jarvie Los An­ge­les Times

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