By: Elisabeth Seiple
A close congressional race in North Carolina’s 9th district between Democratic candidate Dan McCready and Republican candidate Mark Harris came under fire recently for suspicions of election fraud.
Mark Harris is an evangelical pastor from outside of Charlotte, who previously ran for the House, and lost, in the same district. Dan McCready is a Marine veteran and small business owner; this is his first time running for public office. Harris has been quoted expressing the desire to “abolish the Department of Education,” opposes Roe vs. Wade, considers being gay both a choice and a sin, and has even questioned whether a woman’s choice to pursue a career is the “healthiest pursuit for children.” McCready, the Democrat, has been criticized for not taking a hard enough of a stance on issues, but considering the conservative district he represents, this might be to his benefit. The race originally ended with a victory for Harris, by a close 905 votes, but the State Board of Elections refused to sign off on the results after concerns were raised due to unusual patterns in absentee voting.
The controversy stems, in large part, from an operative named Leslie McCrae Dowless, who had previously helped other Republican candidates win absentee ballot votes and had succeeded in his own election bid for the Bladen county Soil and Water Conservation Board. Dowless was hired by the Harris campaign via the Red Dome consultant firm. He has a history of securing the mail-in vote for local Republican politicians; since 2010, at least five of Dowless’s candidates have, regardless of overall voting percentage, won a clear majority of absentee ballots. In the primary, Harris was able to beat out his competition by a total of 828 votes. 437 of these votes were gained via mail-in ballots, compared to the 13 mail-in ballots his opponent managed to garner. Dowless attributes this success to his personal “get out the vote” method, which he coincidentally described during a 2016 hearing in the 9th District concerning a different accusation of potential fraud by a Democratic candidate. His method entails “volunteers,” who are, in actuality, paid per ballot, who go to homes to “collect” absentee ballots and sign as witnesses on these ballots. The fact that this same group of volunteers showed up as witnesses on so many of the county’s absentee ballots is what first alerted officials to potential fraud. Additionally, Dowless and those related to him requested hundreds of ballots in the months leading up to the election, and allegedly held on to hundreds of completed ballots. It remains unknown whether any of these retained ballots were ever turned in to election officials.
Aside from the accusations against Dowless himself, Harris’s liability for Dowless’s actions is uncertain. There are conflicting opinions as to whether or not Harris was aware of the potential illegality of Dowless’s methods before hiring him. Harris himself denies any knowledge. If it is discovered Harris was aware of any fraud that transpired, he could face criminal charges himself. In the meantime, the investigation is ongoing, and after a December 21st hearing on the decision whether or not a new election needs to be held garnered uncertai results, it’s unclear what the county’s new deadline will be.