NC Operative Charged in Ballot Case

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Leslie McCrae Dowless was known in his rural North Carolina community as a sad-eyed, politically obsessed man who over nearly a decade delivered votes for his candidates and stayed just out of reach of laws protecting ballots from potential tampering.

But less than two years after landing his best-paying client in Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris, Dowless was booked Wednesday on charges of illegal ballot handling and conspiracy in the 2018 Republican primary and in the 2016 elections. He and four people who'd worked for him were also charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice.

North Carolina law makes it illegal for anyone other than a voter or their immediate family to handle an absentee ballot before it is sealed and mailed.

Dowless was arrested less than a week after the state elections board decided his work on behalf of Harris, starting with the 2018 primary, tainted the GOP candidate's apparent victory in November. The board ordered a new election but hasn't set a date.

Harris is not running in the new election, but his Democratic opponent from November, Dan McCready, is.

The charges came a year after state elections investigators published a report detailing that Dowless paid cash-starved rural neighbors to bring him voters' ballots in the 2016 elections. By that time, Harris had already recruited and paid Dowless a retainer to replicate the magic formula that resulted in one of Harris' Republican rivals scoring an incredible 98 percent of the mail-in ballots in the 2016 primary.

Harris funneled about $115,000 to Dowless through campaign consulting firm Red Dome, which never evaluated the Bladen County man's methods or performance and never asked for expense receipts. Some of that was used to pay workers to put up and take down Harris campaign signs on top of the door-to-door absentee ballot campaign.

But the amount still shocked Dowless' ex-wife and roommate for part of last year, Sandra Dowless said at a special elections board hearing into the ballot-fraud allegations last week.

"He didn't ever have any money," she said of the man perpetually holding a cigarette in one hand and cellphone in the other.

Prosecutors are still investigating evidence of ballot tampering by Dowless and others during last fall's congressional election in the mostly rural 9th District, which includes part of Charlotte and extends eastward across several counties.

The indictment represents the first charges in a scandal that has cast doubt on election integrity and will leave a congressional seat unfilled for months.

The crimes "served to undermine the integrity of the absentee ballot process and the public's confidence in the outcome of the electoral process," the indictment said.

Harris has not been charged with a crime and has denied knowledge of any illegal practices by those involved with his campaign. But he, too, could come under scrutiny. During last week's board hearing, he admitted writing personal checks to Dowless in 2017, a potential violation if the payments weren't reported.

Dowless has denied any wrongdoing and did not respond to phone and text messages Wednesday. A woman hung up on a call to Dowless' attorney. Dowless refused to testify before the elections board without immunity from prosecution.

Harris paid Dowless despite repeated warnings from the candidate's son, now an assistant federal prosecutor in Raleigh, that the operative was likely resorting to illegal methods to get his results. In fact, Dowless had been on the radar of state elections investigators since 2010, when he was suspected — but never charged — with being among a group buying votes.

That was one of at least a half-dozen instances over the last nine years that prosecutors and elections officials received complaints of serious elections irregularities in Bladen County.

Dowless is a "needy person" who called daily to talk about the Harris campaign, Red Dome founder Andy Yates testified last week. "Politics was his thing. He didn't have anything else going on."

Sandra Dowless said last week she overheard a phone conversation before November's election in which her ex-husband told Harris he was performing strongly. Since no votes had yet been counted, Harris asked him how he knew, she said.

"I know the people and I know how they vote," Sandra Dowless recounted him saying.