In 2010, a political operative named Leslie McCrae Dowless received a little over $7,100 to provide get-out-the-vote services for a candidate running in and around Bladen County, N.C. That candidate lost his race by about 6 points, though he won a majority of the mailed-in absentee votes.
That was thanks to Bladen County. Harold “Butch” Pope earned 52 percent of the mail-in absentee vote in his district. In Bladen, he won 81 percent of the absentee vote. Without the votes from Bladen, he would have lost the absentee vote by nearly 3-to-1.
Dowless is now at the center of questions about his role in a much more important contest — the race for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District in this year’s midterms. Over the past several days, Dowless has been identified as the manager of an alleged effort to collect absentee ballots from voters in Bladen that may then have been altered by people other than the voters themselves.
Bladen County was the only county in the 9th District in which Republican candidate Mark Harris won a majority of mailed-in absentee votes last month. As was the case with Pope’s race in 2010, Harris’s support in mailed-in absentee votes was more than 20 percentage points higher than his performance in the rest of the district. It was in the primary, too, when Harris earned a stunning 98 percent of the mailed-in absentee votes in Bladen.
In each election, Harris’s campaign was working with a consulting firm called Red Dome Group, which hired Dowless for an absentee-ballot outreach program. Dowless’s effort, as The Washington Post has reported, included hiring people out of an office in Bladen County to encourage voters to request absentee ballots and then allegedly collecting those ballots from voters. Dowless staffers appear to have frequently signed as witnesses to the voters' vote choices and then submitted the ballots to the state.
According to campaign finance records and data from the Federal Election Commission and the state of North Carolina, Dowless has worked on at least five campaigns since 2010 in which his candidates earned much more of the vote in Bladen County than the candidates earned elsewhere. In three races, the candidate earned less support in Bladen than outside the county.
In the three races where the candidates paying Dowless lost, he received much less money in payment. Red Dome was paid more than $430,000 for its work for Harris, which extended beyond Dowless’s efforts. In the other three races in which his candidates outperformed in Bladen County, Dowless was paid at least $6,400 — more than twice the combined total he was paid in the three elections where his candidates underperformed. The implication? In those races, his outreach effort was less robust.
Update: A separate campaign finance report provided to The Post and filed by the campaign of John Szoka, a candidate for the state House in 2010, indicates that Dowless was paid $5,000 for get-out-the-vote services. Overall, Szoka won about 37 percent of mail-in absentee votes. In Bladen County, he only won 28 percent. This is the only example of Dowless being paid more than $1,500 without Bladen County outperforming on absentee ballots.
After the 2016 race in which congressional candidate Todd Johnson won nearly every mail-in ballot in the county in the Republican primary, Dowless was questioned by the state elections board about irregularities in county voting.
That hearing was apparently the same one covered by the public radio show “This American Life” that December. Reporter Zoe Chace described allegations by Dowless that the campaign of his opponent in a local race, which Dowless won, had violated the law by filling out absentee ballots without voters' consent.
Questioned about his complaint during a hearing before an ethics board, Dowless appeared to back away from the allegation. Asked whether he himself had committed fraud, Dowless admitted activity much like what’s alleged in 2018.
“Here’s what tumbles out of McCrae under the board’s questioning. He had some people working for him, getting out the vote — volunteers, McCrae calls them. The volunteers, though, were allegedly getting paid for each ballot they turned in. That is illegal. One of the voters who signed an affidavit said that Get Out the Vote workers came by and had her family request absentee ballots. But then they never received their absentee ballots in the mail like they were supposed to. Then, when the family went to vote on Election Day, they were told they’d already voted. In essence, McCrae’s getting accused of paying people to obtain absentee ballots, fill them out, and cast their votes on someone else’s behalf. That, for sure, is illegal. McCrae says he didn’t do anything wrong.”
That was in 2016. The Post reported this week that the criminal investigation recommended at the end of that hearing was still being investigated.
There’s an interesting side story to that “This American Life” story. Chace spoke with a Republican operative named Dallas Woodhouse, who was alleging voter fraud in the state and responded to allegations about the race Dowless was ostensibly complaining about in no uncertain terms.
“Should the election board find that these are absentee-ballot mills, with the purpose of fraudulent voting, those people should go to jail,” Woodhouse said. “They should go to jail. They should spend the first term of the Trump administration behind bars.”
Woodhouse was then and is now the executive director of the Republican Party in North Carolina. Earlier this week, he recorded a message for donors in the state.
“We are trying to cobble together additional donations to the state party because we are trying to keep the Democrats from stealing the congressional race from Mark Harris,” Woodhouse said in the message, according to Joe Bruno of WSOC-TV in Charlotte. “They are throwing everything against the wall, and it is running up expenses for us by the minute. But you know they’ll steal it if they can. And the frustrating thing to [state party] Chairman [Robin] Hayes, and I know you as well, this is just a test to see if they can steal North Carolina from Donald Trump in 2020.”
On Twitter, Woodhouse denied any involvement in absentee-ballot efforts in Bladen County.
2020 would be the 10th anniversary of Dowless doing campaign work that lopsidedly benefits his employer’s absentee-ballot counts in Bladen County. It’s not yet known whether he’ll still be allowed to offer his services in that election.
correction: This article originally indicated that Pope won his DA race based on an incomplete tally of the vote.