Repub­li­can of­fi­cials had early warn­ings of vot­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Amy Gard­ner and Beth Rein­hard

BLADENBORO, N.C.» When Repub­li­can Rep. Robert Pit­tenger lost his pri­mary by a nar­row mar­gin in May, he sus­pected some­thing was amiss.

The con­gress­man turned to a group of friends and fam­ily who had gath­ered with him on elec­tion night at a steak­house near Char­lotte, N.C., and blamed the “bal­lot stuffers in Bladen,” ac­cord­ing to three peo­ple at the gath­er­ing.

Pit­tenger’s con­cern stemmed from the vote tal­lies in ru­ral Bladen County, N.C., where his chal­lenger, a pas­tor from the Char­lotte suburbs named Mark Har­ris, had won 437 ab­sen­tee mail-in votes. Pit­tenger, a three-term in­cum­bent, had re­ceived just 17.

In the days im­me­di­ately af­ter the race, aides to Pit­tenger told the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the state Repub­li­can Party and a re­gional po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tor for the Na­tional Repub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee that they be­lieved fraud had oc­curred, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with their dis­cus­sions.

GOP of­fi­cials did lit­tle to scru­ti­nize the re­sults, in­stead turn­ing their at­ten­tion to Har­ris’ gen­eral-elec­tion cam­paign against a well-funded Demo­cratic op­po­nent, the peo­ple said.

Their ac­counts pro­vide the first in­di­ca­tion that state and na­tional Repub­li­can of­fi­cials re­ceived early warn­ings about vot­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in North Carolina’s 9th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict, now the sub­ject of mul­ti­ple crim­i­nal probes.

A spokesman for the NRCC de­nied that Pit­tenger’s cam­paign raised the

pos­si­bil­ity of fraud in the pri­mary.

Al­le­ga­tions of fraud in Novem­ber’s gen­eral elec­tion have now put the out­come of the 9th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict race in limbo. State in­ves­ti­ga­tors are ex­am­in­ing the ac­tiv­i­ties of a po­lit­i­cal oper­a­tive named Les­lie McCrae Dow­less, who ran a get-out-the-vote ef­fort for the Har­ris cam­paign dur­ing the pri­mary and gen­eral elec­tions.

While the in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ues, the elec­tions board has de­clined to cer­tify the 9th Dis­trict race, in which Har­ris leads Demo­crat Dan McCready by 905 votes, ac­cord­ing to un­of­fi­cial re­sults.

On Thurs­day, McCready told tele­vi­sion sta­tion WSOC that he was with­draw­ing his con­ces­sion and ac­cused Har­ris of bankroll- ing “crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity.”

Dow­less, who has worked on po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns in Bladen County for at least a decade, touts his abil­ity to mo­bi­lize vot­ers to cast bal­lots by mail, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple who know him. He has been un­der scru­tiny by state of­fi­cials since 2016, when al­le­ga­tions sur­faced about il­le­gal bal­lot har­vest­ing in that year’s cam­paigns, lead­ing to a pub­lic hear­ing.

Dow­less, who told the Char­lotte Ob­server that he did not com­mit any wrong­do­ing, de­clined to com­ment Thurs­day. “I’m just not giv­ing any com­ment at this time,” he told re­porters and pho­tog­ra­phers in front of his house in Bladenboro, ad­ding, “No dis­re­spect to any­body.”

Pit­tenger said Dow­less tried to sell him his ser­vices in 2016 but that he de­clined to hire the oper­a­tive.

“I just knew I didn’t want to be in­volved with him,” Pit­tenger said. “Dow­less’ ef­forts were widely known, and we did share our con­cerns with sev­eral peo­ple,” de­clin­ing to elab­o­rate on who he spoke to or what he said.

Since re­ports of ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in the 9th Dis­trict emerged last month, GOP lead­ers in the state — in­clud­ing Dal­las Wood­house, the state GOP ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor — ini­tially played down con­cerns that laws were bro­ken.

They re­peat­edly cast the sit­u­a­tion in po­lit­i­cal terms, as­sert­ing that any vot­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties were not wide­spread enough to change the out­come of the elec­tion.

In an in­ter­view this week, Wood­house ini­tially said he did not re­call field­ing com­plaints from Pit­tenger aides of pos­si­ble fraud af­ter the pri­mary. But he called back a few mo­ments later to say that he did re­mem­ber hear­ing of anom­alies — and took “a cur­sory look at the end of that race at the vote to­tals.”

He re­called con­clud­ing that Har­ris had won the over­all vote with a strong show­ing from evan­gel­i­cal vot­ers, but he said: “We did not look real specif­i­cally at ab­sen­tee bal­lots.”

“If some­body said some­thing about the ab­sen­tee bal­lots, it is just very pos­si­ble that it didn’t reg­is­ter with us,” Wood­house said. “We had a lot of cam­paigns and a lot of peo­ple ex­press­ing con­cerns at the end of the elec­tion, and we were try­ing to quickly move on to the gen­eral elec­tion.”

NRCC spokesman Matt Gor­man de­nied that any­one af­fil­i­ated with the Pit­tenger cam­paign brought up pos­si­ble fraud to any­one at the com­mit­tee, in­clud­ing Tyler Foote, who ran the south­east re­gion for the NRCC.

“We had them on the phone nu­mer­ous times, and there was no men­tion of fraud,” Gor­man said. “It’s un­for­tu­nate that there’s a re­vi­sion­ist his­tory go­ing on.”

Foote did not re­spond to mul­ti­ple re­quests for com­ment. He has been named Har­ris’ in­com­ing chief of staff, although whether Har­ris will be seated in Congress in Jan­uary re­mains uncer­tain.

Pit­tenger said he did not re­call be­ing told of fraud com­plaints his ad­vis­ers made to Wood­house and Foote, and he de­clined to con­firm that he blamed “bal­lot stuffers” on elec­tion night.

But he said there was “a lot of angst” among his cam­paign aides, who “were all up­set about what hap­pened.”

“I think there were a lot of frus­trated feel­ings in­side the room as we saw the re­sults come in,” he said.

The state elec­tions board is in­ves­ti­gat­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in mail-in bal­lot­ing in the 9th Dis­trict gen­eral elec­tion — many of them in Bladen County, which had the high­est share of mail-in votes in the dis­trict, state records show.

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