9th District: Dowless crew handled 1 in 5 absentee votes in Bladen County

One out of every five absentee ballots counted in Bladen County in 2018 were handled by people linked to the Republican political operative at the center of an investigation that has stalled the results of a North Carolina Congressional election.

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Tyler Dukes, WRAL investigative reporter,
Catherine Fitzhenry, news production assistant
RALEIGH, N.C. — One out of every five absentee ballots counted in Bladen County in 2018 were handled by people linked to the Republican political operative at the center of an investigation that has stalled the results of a North Carolina congressional election.
That’s according to an analysis by WRAL News, which this month closely examined more than 1,500 signed envelopes from accepted absentee ballots made public by the State Board of Elections in its probe of voting irregularities in the 9th Congressional District. The agency’s investigation has largely focused over the last few months on two southeastern North Carolina counties – Bladen and Robeson – both the subject of scrutiny in previous elections.

People linked to McCrae Dowless signed as witnesses on almost 15 percent of the accepted absentee ballots cast in both Bladen and Robeson counties, WRAL’s analysis shows. Dowless was hired for get-out-the-vote efforts by the campaign of Republican 9th District candidate Mark Harris, who leads Democratic opponent Dan McCready by 905 votes in unofficial results.

A smaller group that includes members active in the Democratically aligned Bladen County Improvement Association also witnessed about 20 percent of the accepted absentee ballots in that county.

All told, WRAL’s analysis shows that just 20 people witnessed about 400 absentee ballots across Bladen and Robeson counties. That’s about one of every four absentee ballots cast there.

Witnessing multiple absentee ballots isn’t illegal. But it can be a red flag for state elections officials, who are investigating claims that people hired by Dowless took voters’ ballots after signing them as witnesses. Except for close family members, it’s a felony under North Carolina law to take possession of someone else’s ballot.

Determining the size of any alleged ballot-harvesting operations is particularly important in Bladen and Robeson counties, where nearly 45 percent of the absentee ballots sent to voters were never returned.

Dowless, who did not respond to a request for comment, has, through his attorney, denied any wrongdoing. Leaders with the Bladen County Improvement Association say the group didn’t organize any absentee ballot efforts during the 2018 election.

But individuals with connections to both groups have been subpoenaed to appear next week before a newly reconstituted State Board of Elections, which on Monday will begin to review evidence in the investigation in a hearing expected to last two to three days.

The board will ultimately decide what becomes of the state’s yet-to-be filled U.S. House seat representing the 9th District, which runs along the South Carolina border from Charlotte to Fayetteville and across a large portion of Bladen County.

Few names, many ballots

Reporters with WRAL News attempted to contact 20 people who signed as witnesses for more than 10 ballots apiece in Bladen and Robeson counties at their homes, by phone and through social media accounts. Those attempts went largely unanswered and unreturned.

Jessica Dowless, who witnessed at least 15 ballots in Bladen County, declined to comment when reached by phone Wednesday. But she acknowledged she had received a subpoena to appear for the hearing.

Jennifer Boyd, who witnessed at least 57 ballots in Robeson County, also declined to comment when reached by phone Wednesday.

“Have a blessed day,” she said before hanging up.

On a single day in September, Boyd signed 18 ballots for voters near Saint Pauls, separated by a few miles of rural roads.

Her signature in many cases appeared as a witness alongside Lisa Britt, whose name is on at least 66 absentee ballot envelopes in Robeson and Bladen counties. Britt, who also goes by Lisa Gray, did not respond to requests for comment.

Britt’s signature is on the ballot of Shirley Brown, a Bladenboro resident who filled out her absentee vote in late September when Britt arrived at her home.

"We were just sitting out on the porch. She got my ballot. We just sat there and talked a little while,” Brown said. “She took it and left. That's about all there was to it."

Brown said Britt didn’t push any particular candidates and didn’t mention getting paid. She didn’t mention money at all.

"Now that I think about it, I can't figure people going around, ain't no telling how many miles, getting up ballots for nothing, using their gas and stuff like that,” Brown said. “It just never crossed my mind at the time."

But she does recall Britt collecting the ballots for McCrae Dowless specifically.

"She just said she was out gathering them up for him, so I gave her mine," Brown said.

There’s another name on Brown’s ballot she doesn’t recognize – Sandra Dowless. Brown doesn’t remember seeing the woman at her home when she signed and sealed her ballot and got it witnessed by Britt. Yet her signature appears on Brown’s absentee ballot and at least 10 others in Bladen County. Sandra Dowless did not respond to requests for comment.

Brown said her daughter, Angila Ferguson, handed her ballot over to Ginger Eason (36 ballots), who signed the absentee envelope alongside Cheryl Kinlaw (23 ballots). Neither responded to requests for comment, but they told WRAL News in December that Dowless offered to pay them $75 to $100 to pick up 50 ballots a week.

"We did not know it was illegal to pick them up," Kinlaw said in December. "Once I dropped them off at his office, we assumed he was putting them in the mail."

A sharp partisan divide

Aside from a handful of registered Democrats, the vast majority of counted absentee ballots that frequently bear the signatures of people linked with McCrae Dowless are for Republican and unaffiliated voters.

Woody Hester, for example, counts a single Democratic voter among the 51 absentee ballots he witnessed. James Singletary, who frequently appears alongside Lisa Britt, has only two registered Democrats among his 43 signed, counted absentee ballots in Bladen County.

Attempts to reach both Hester and Singletary were unsuccessful.

Other frequent signatories, however, almost exclusively appeared on the ballots of registered Democrats.

Lola Wooten’s name appeared as a witness on at least 95 counted absentee ballots in Bladen County, all but six of whom were Democrats. On Oct. 1 alone, she signed 15 absentee ballots as a witness for voters near Elizabethtown.

Wooten did not respond to requests for comment.

Although he said Wooten is an active member of the Bladen County Improvement Association PAC, North Carolina Central University law professor Irving Joyner, who represents the group, said its leadership decided not to engage in absentee ballot efforts in the 2018 election like it did in past years. But that wouldn’t stop individuals from doing it on their own.

"In the past, there have been members of the association involved in helping a number of people to get their ballots signed and witnessed to be able to get them back to the board of elections,” Joyner said. “I know in the past Lola Wooten has been one of those individuals, so she is well aware of the protocol for doing that.”

He added that he wasn’t concerned with the number of ballots that bear her signature. Wooten and others at the BCIA, he said, have attended workshops from elections officials to learn how to handle and witness ballots according to the law.

Michael Cogdell, with the BCIA, made that point too when reached by phone Thursday.

"You can sign one or 1,000 or 10,000 – as long as you follow the law," Cogdell said.

But Joyner acknowledged that both Wooten and Deborah Monroe, who signed at least 56 absentee ballots in Bladen County, have received subpoenas to appear at the State Board of Elections hearing.

The Bladen County Improvement Association paid both women around $1,000 in the month before the 2018 election for get-out-the-vote efforts, according to the PAC’s fourth-quarter campaign finance report. The association also paid $1,200 to Sandra Guions, who signed at least 69 absentee ballots in Bladen County, for get-out-the-vote efforts in the two weeks before the election.

Neither Monroe nor Guions returned messages seeking comment. But Joyner said those were payments for monitoring work at polls, expenses and other get-out-the-vote activities.

“No individual received payments for the purpose of assisting or obtaining absentee ballots on behalf of BCIA,” Joyner said in an email.

Other names listed on the association’s campaign finance report for those get-out-the-vote payments do not appear frequently – or at all – as ballot witnesses.

When reached briefly Wednesday by phone, Wanda Monroe said although she did work with the BCIA, most of the 52 ballots she witnessed and signed in Bladen County were church and community members.

Sometimes the explanation for multiple signatures can be as simple as a large, close family.

Dazza Mack’s name appears as a witness on 14 absentee ballots in Robeson County. They’re all kin, she said. She hasn’t paid much attention to the controversy in the two counties, but she’s helped family members who work late or don’t want to stand in line at the polls by witnessing their forms and letting them seal and send off their votes.

“I was just helping to get the ballots in,” Mack said when reached by phone Wednesday.

Disgust and disappointment

Joyner said he supports the use of absentee ballots, which can help people who struggle to get to the polls exercise their right to vote. They were especially valuable for areas of the state hard hit by hurricanes that swept through the southeast of the state in the months before Election Day.

But he said illegally collecting ballots from voters opens up the possibility of fraud – either by changing votes or stifling them altogether. He said that, unlike in 2016, when the state board referred evidence of ballot harvesting to the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District’s Office with seemingly little response, he wants to see action this year.

"If there is wrongdoing, then that matter should be referred for prosecution,” Joyner said.

He thinks there’s enough evidence of questionable ballots to call for a new election.

It’s a move the North Carolina Republican Party and apparent 9th Congressional District front-runner Mark Harris oppose and will likely fight in the hearing next week.

But for voters like Shirley Brown in Bladenboro, the damage is done.

She’s been watching news about the investigation closely and was surprised to learn – months after she gave up her ballot – that it was illegal for Lisa Britt to take it from her.

"It makes me to where I don't even want to vote no more. I really don't even care if it's in there anymore because of stuff like this,” Brown said. “I'm just disgusted with it.”

Brown said she’s the kind of person who tries to see the good in everybody, to help people when she can. She said she’s disappointed she and other voters are stuck in the middle of a controversy that’s prompted both investigators and reporters to descend on her town in search of answers.

“I'm sorry all this stuff has happened. I really hate it. We don't need stuff like this,” Brown said. “We need to be with each other and try to do things right, because we sure don't need no more mix-ups in the this world. We got enough of them."

Looking back, she said she might do something different. Not give up her ballot, maybe. Mail it in herself.

Maybe not.

But despite her disgust, will she vote the next time around?

“Probably me, I will.” she said with a laugh. “I probably will.”

WRAL’s Amanda Lamb and Travis Fain contributed reporting to this story.