State inquiry into 9th Congressional District extends into Robeson

Bladen County may have been the hub of an alleged vote harvesting scheme, but more ballots are missing in Robeson County.

Posted Updated
9th Congressional District map
Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — There's evidence that a suspected Bladen County ballot-harvesting operation at the center of questions about the results of the recent election in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District was also active in neighboring Robeson County, and state investigators are interviewing voters here.

Under a theory state investigators are working, Bladen County may have been the hub of an organized effort to collect absentee ballots. But Robeson County had more unreturned absentee ballots in the November election – and a potentially larger impact on results.

A Robeson County couple told WRAL News this week that two women came to their door and left with their absentee ballots. That's illegal, and it mirrors reports from Bladen County that have thrown the congressional race into turmoil and raised the possibility of another election.

Another Robeson County woman said she was paid to get people to request absentee ballots in the county, which is legal.

The woman said she was directed by Jennifer Boyd, who is believed to be connected to McCrae Dowless, the man at the center of the state investigation. Boyd witnessed dozens of absentee ballots with Lisa Britt, who is the daughter of Dowless' ex-wife and did absentee ballot work in both Bladen and Robeson counties.

Dowless worked through a third-party consultant on Republican Mark Harris' campaign in the 9th District, and he is suspected of running crews door to door to collect ballots. The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement officially named Dowless "a person of interest in connection with an alleged absentee ballot operation" on Friday.

No one has been charged, and the investigation may continue for another two weeks.

More than 3,400 of the mail-in absentee ballots requested in the 9th District ahead of the election went unreturned. More than 1,100 of those were from Robeson County.

"We don't know where the outstanding ballots are at this point," Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, whose office is running a separate criminal investigation, said this week.

Britt's named appears on dozens of absentee ballot certifications in both Bladen and Robeson counties, according to records the state has put online as part of its investigation. Mail-in ballots have to be witnessed by two people under North Carolina law, and in Robeson County, Britt typically signed in tandem with either Boyd or Rhonda Strickland.

In Bladen County, she typically signed with either Ginger Eason or a man whose name appears to be James Singleton. His signature is difficult to read, but witnesses are not required to write their names legibly.

It's not illegal to witness so many ballots, but it's a red flag because it's unusual.

Efforts to reach Britt and Strickland were not successful. Eason and another woman, Cheryl Kinlaw, told WRAL News earlier this week that Dowless paid them to collect absentee ballots.
Britt told Buzzfeed News that she didn't collect anyone's ballots, but voters interviewed as a media frenzy descended on this rural part of North Carolina have said she did.

Boyd declined an interview when WRAL News reached her. "No comment," she said. "Have a blessed day."

In Robeson County, Cary and and Wendy Grimsley told WRAL News that they filled out absentee ballots while a woman they believed to be Britt and a second woman that they did not know were at their home in Saint Pauls. The women did not tell them how to vote, they said, but left with their sealed ballots, as well as one from Cary Grimsley's daughter, the couple said.

The two women had a list of other stops, the couple said.

Cary Grimsley described himself as "a Republican man," but said he normally does not vote. State records show his absentee ballot, and his wife's and daughter's, were counted this year. Records also indicate that Boyd and Strickland, not Britt, witnessed their ballots.

It's unclear how many absentee ballots collected by strangers in this race were counted.

Two Bladen County voters filed affidavits in this investigation saying a woman they did not know came to their homes to collect ballots. But they later voted in person, making their absentee votes moot in the final election count.

Freeman said there is still work to be done to determine how often that happened and how significantly any harvesting efforts affected election outcomes. As of Friday evening, Freeman said her investigation was focused on Bladen County and had not moved into Robeson County.

The Grimsleys said a state elections board investigator came to their home Wednesday. They said the whole process of voting absentee started as a favor to Ashley Pate, who lives nearby and told them she was getting paid to persuade people to request mail-in ballots.

That's legal, according to experts in North Carolina election law, but it's another red flag.

Dowless and a person named Jessica Dowless turned in more than half the absentee ballot requests that Bladen County received in the run up to the election, according to a log the county kept of people who dropped off requests. Similar numbers for Robeson County haven't been released, but the county's Board of Elections chairman said state investigators collected those records the day after the state board first voted to delay final results in the 9th District.

Pate told WRAL News that Boyd made arrangements for her to be paid, communicating with her through Facebook Messenger. In the end, Pate said, she didn't sign up many people.

"I felt a little weird," she said.

Deedra Ashley, who lives in Robeson County, said state investigators also visited her Wednesday asking about her ballot. Bond and Strickland witnessed that ballot as well, based on signatures on the return envelope.

Ashley said only one person visited her to witness the ballot, though, and that she didn't remember her name.

"I told (investigators) I didn't remember a second signature," Ashley said Thursday. "There wasn't a second person here."

Both witnesses are supposed to sign in the voter's presence.

Ashley said the woman who visited her didn't push her to vote for anyone particular.

Her absentee ballot was counted, according to state records. It was the first time the 59-year-old had voted.


Copyright 2024 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.