Criminal charges filed in 9th District absentee ballot fraud scandal

Posted July 30, 2019 4:43 p.m. EDT
Updated August 1, 2019 10:48 a.m. EDT

Editor's note: This story initially listed charges against Tonya Britt Long in connection with this case, but Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Long's name was submitted to the grand jury by mistake, and the charges against her have been dismissed. The grand jury will review allegations against Tonya D. Long in the future, Freeman said.

RALEIGH — The absentee ballot fraud scandal that forced a new election in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District resulted in criminal charges Tuesday against more than a half-dozen people.

McCrae Dowless, the Bladen County political operative who emerged as the central figure in a state investigation into irregularities in the 9th District election last fall, was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice and one count each of conspiracy to obstruct justice, illegal possession of an absentee ballot, perjury and solicitation to commit perjury.

According to testimony from a State Board of Elections hearing in February, Dowless paid people to go door to door to first sign people up to vote by mail and later to collect those absentee ballots. Dowless' crew sometimes completed ballots for voters and also certified dozens of absentee ballots in a central office instead of in front of individual voters, witnesses said during the hearing.

North Carolina law prohibits anyone except close relatives from taking an absentee ballot from a voter.

Dowless has, through his attorney, previously denied any wrongdoing.

Lisa Michelle Britt, Ginger Shae Eason, Kelly Hendrix, Woody Darrel Hester and James R. Singletary were indicted on conspiracy to obstruct justice and illegal possession of an absentee ballot charges. Britt also was charged with voting as a convicted felon.

Jessica Hales Dowless was indicted on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and falsely certifying absentee ballots.

All seven have surrendered to authorities in Bladen County and have been released on $10,000 unsecured bonds.

"The absentee ballot fraud that occurred in the 9th Congressional District effectively disenfranchised voters in that district," Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections, said in a statement. "North Carolina voters should be confident that state officials will continue to be vigilant and pursue any individuals or organizations that attempt to undermine our elections."

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said the investigation into absentee ballot fraud is ongoing, and more charges and defendants are possible.

"We have always been interested in trying to determine what the level of knowledge was as to this operation that was going on in Bladen County by those people who had funded this operation," Freeman said. "We have not concluded that part of the investigation. Whether that will result in criminal charges, I think it would be premature to say."

Freeman has led the investigation into absentee ballot irregularities since last year, when Bladen County's district attorney recused himself from the case forwarded by state elections investigators.

McCrae Dowless was working for Republican Mark Harris in the 9th District campaign last year. Neither Harris nor any of his campaign staff have been charged in the case.

Harris said during the February hearing that he wanted Dowless on his team after seeing how effective he was in previous elections, including Harris' 2016 primary loss in the 9th District, when Dowless worked for his opponent. But Harris said he had no idea what Dowless was doing, despite warnings from his son that something fishy was going on in Bladen County.

Britt was a key witness in the state investigation, detailing the work she and others did for Dowless, her former stepfather. She also said that he tried to influence what she told the elections board.

Hendrix also testified at the state hearing, breaking into tears because McCrae Dowless was a father figure to her. She also was charged Tuesday with conspiracy to obstruct justice and illegal possession of an absentee ballot for her work with Dowless in the 2016 election.

Dowless was indicted in February on obstruction and conspiracy charges in connection with his absentee ballot activities in the 2016 election and the 2018 primaries. The perjury charge against him Tuesday also was related to the 2016 election.

Harris, who appeared to have defeated Democrat Dan McCready by about 900 votes in last fall's 9th District election, chose not to run in the do-over election. McCready will face Republican state Sen. Dan Bishop, Libertarian Jeff Scott and Green Party candidate Allen Smith in the Sept. 10 election.