‘I’m scared and I don’t remember half of what we are supposed to say. I’ve never been investigated for anything…’
(Brian Murphy, Ely Portillo and Will Doran, McClatchy Washington Bureau) McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County, N.C., elected official and political operative, paid workers to collect absentee ballots and return them to him before the 2016 election, witnesses told state board of election investigators, according to documents released Wednesday.
The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement released the documents as part of its investigation into mail-in absentee ballot and voting irregularities during the 2018 election in Bladen and Robeson counties. The board has declined to certify the Republican winner of North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District race as a result.
However, some on the GOP side have decried the systemic fraud in the counties, which they say authorities — including current Gov. Roy Cooper and elections board chair Joshua Malcolm — deliberately turned a blind eye to when the outcome favored Democrats.
During the 2018 race, Republican Mark Harris—the apparent winner of the 9th District election by 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready—hired Dowless to work on absentee ballots and get-out-the-vote operations in Bladen County.
In an interview last week, Harris said he was introduced to Dowless, whom many respected local officials vouched for, after losing a 2016 primary race because of the absentee ballots.
Harris has emphatically stated that the get-out-the-vote program he understood Dowless to be running was fully legal and above-board, though he does not know if the independent contractor broke the law.
Dowless himself issued a statement through an attorney recently in which he denied violating the law.
Despite the national focus on Dowless’s activities, numerous other allegations of elections shenanigans—both those involving absentee ballots and other types of fraud—have also arisen, prompting calls from members of the state legislature—among others—to pursue a bipartisan task force that would focus on reforming and cleaning up corruption in the state’s elections.
The 2016 investigation found “information strongly suggesting” that Dowless “was paying certain individuals to solicit absentee request forms and to collect absentee ballots from Bladen County voters. In doing so, workers employed by Dowless were required to hand-carry the ballots to Dowless in order to be paid.”
It is illegal, outside of very specific circumstances, to collect someone else’s absentee ballot.
The state board turned over three cases—two involving Dowless and one involving the Democrat-funded Bladen County Improvement Association—to the United States Attorney’s Office.
Similar allegations have surfaced during the 2018 election.
Handwritten affidavits from several people involved in the 2016 operation and subsequent investigation show people said they were paid by Dowless to collect ballots.
Caitlyn Croom wrote that she met someone named “Kelly” at a bar where they both worked. Kelly asked her if she wanted to work with her, and they met Dowless the next day in Dublin.
He offered them $225, in two installments, to collect absentee ballot requests from voters. That’s legal.
What allegedly happened next is not.
“We would then start to go out and collect ballots,” Croom wrote.
If they got 20, they’d get the other half of the $225.
“After we had all 20 of them witness and were signed we would take them back to McCrae. He would then take them and tell us he would handel (sic) mailing them off.”
“He told us not to let anyone know that we were being paid based on how many req. (request) forms and ballots we got for him,” Croom wrote.
Matthew Mathis wrote that he also met someone named “Kelly” two months before the 2016 election, and she asked if he wanted a job.
“Being broke I said ‘yes I would,'” Mathis wrote.
He met Dowless in Dublin the next day. Dowless told him that he would collect 20 absentee ballot requests and then go back and get the ballots from voters, Mathis wrote, and he’d get $225.
If anyone asked what the money was for, Dowless said to tell them it was for time and gas, not ballots.
“Once I went and got the ballots I, along with my girlfriend Caitlyn, were to witness the ballot’s signature and then return them to McCrae,” he said.
Once investigators contacted him, Mathis wrote that he turned to Dowless.
Mathis wrote that Dowless instructed him to say he’d taken three ballots to Dowless “because we had watched Ms. Baldwin sign all three of those ballots and we wanted to show him the wrongdoing.”
Mathis wrote Dowless told him to tell investigators that Dowless had instructed him to take the ballots “straight back and not mess with them.”
“Just say that and you will be alright,” Dowless said, according to Mathis.
The documents show texts sent to Dowless from a cellphone shared by both Croom and Mathis—whom Dowless testified, in a 2016 elections board hearing, had done “Get Out the Vote” work for him.
In one exchange, they text Dowless asking for more money since two of the candidates he was working for won their elections.
“Hey mccrae, u said if ray and ashley both won we would get a bonus lol,” the wrote in one message, followed a minute later by: “I’m just asking if u were serious … we’re broke as a bad joke.”
He doesn’t respond.
Later, they text him back, expressing concern about a state investigator who was asking questions about their operation.
“Hey mccrae that weird number was the investigators,” they wrote. “They called me again today. They want to meet with me in the morning, im scared and I don’t remember half of what we are supposed to say. I’ve never been investigated for anything.”
It’s unclear if that was Croom or Mathis who texted that message.
In a transcript of the 2016 elections board hearing, Dowless at one point said that he had passed on Croom’s phone number to state investigators who wanted to talk to her.
At another point, he testified that Mathis at one point contacted him and asked to meet in the parking lot of an Elizabethtown fast-food restaurant, after investigators had spoken with Mathis.
“I believe his words was, ‘I’m scared,'” Croom told the board in that 2016 hearing.
“I said, ‘Well, Mr. Mathis, I didn’t hire you.’ I said, ‘I hired Catie.’ I says, ‘Now, what you’ve done you’ve done on your own and if you’ve done something wrong, you need to tell the people.’ That was my exact words to that gentleman. I said, ‘If you have done something wrong, you need to tell the investigators.'”
Portillo reports for The Charlotte Observer, and Doran reports for The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer.
Liberty Headlines’ Ben Sellers also contributed to this report.
(c)2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.