Back before the Big Lie, before the days of examining ballots for bamboo particles, or dreams of liberal voting machines with minds of their own, or nonexistent discarded ballots clogging up our waterways, we witnessed what seems to be an episode of bona fide, dirty, orchestrated election fraud.
It was 2018: The golden age of America when men were men and one of those men was McCrae Dowless, a political operative in North Carolina hired by a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives due to his uncanny knack for winning lots of absentee votes. In this context, “lots” meant North Korea numbers.
Dowless, suspected of ballot tampering in three different elections, died Sunday morning. He leaves behind accusations that he was at the center of a fraud scheme so significant that an election was tossed, adding one rare but real data point to a rightwing fantasy that voter fraud is so vast and effective that it swung a whole nationwide election to President Joe Biden. That Dowless worked on behalf of Republican candidates will likely fade from memory long before the stench of corruption emanating from that fiasco dissipates.
Before he died, Dowless was facing a sticky web of interrelated legal troubles. He was to appear in court this summer on a slew of state charges related to alleged absentee ballot fraud in the 2016 general election, the 2018 primaries and the 2018 general election. He was also indicted for allegedly defrauding the Social Security Administration, charges tangentially connected to his political work.
The COVID-19 pandemic and his deteriorating health postponed the legal proceedings.
The spotlight first turned to Dowless in 2018, shortly after Republican Mark Harris seemingly beat Democrat Dan McCready in an achingly close race to represent North Carolina’s ninth district in the U.S. House. Harris had a 905-vote lead, and McCready had conceded.
“I have to say, as I look at that map tonight, thank God for Bladen and Union County,” crowed Harris at his victory party.
But Bladen County, the key to Harris’ nail-biter victory, soon emerged as the nexus of Dowless’ operations.
The state board of elections refused to certify the race as stray anecdotes grew into a wellspring of voter testimony about people gathering unfinished absentee ballots from their homes, oddly high numbers of absentee ballots never being returned at all and rumors of the big bonus Dowless would get if Harris won.
Harris had supposedly won the absentee vote in Bladen by 61 percent to McCready’s 38. That’s a big margin, and notable given that it was the only county where Harris “won” the mail-in vote. But it’s still easier to swallow than his “victory” with absentee voters against incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC) in the Republican primary, where he claimed 96 percent of the mail-in ballots from Bladen County.
While Harris claimed ignorance of what Dowless was up to — Harris has never been charged in connection to the alleged fraud — high-voltage hearings before the state election board raised doubt.
His son, John Harris, testified that he’d warned his father about hiring Dowless, having heard rumors about his tactics from previous elections. His father wept in the back of the room.
A day later, Mark Harris was presented on the stand with an email he’d written in response to an article alleging Democratic voter fraud, joking that Dowless didn’t want “Dems cutting into his business.” He dismissed his son’s testimony by characterizing him as “a little judgmental with a taste of arrogance.”
Perhaps feeling that the witness seat was getting a little too hot, Harris then said he was too sick to testify, having recently suffered strokes, called for a new election and left the hearing room.
In retrospect, the real scandal is how long Dowless was allowed to tamper with absentee ballots in the semi-open.
Allegations of fraud against Dowless date back to at least 2014, when, according to the New Yorker and court documents, Dowless allegedly helped the Bladen County Republican party chair extort a local businessman into supporting the Republican candidate for sheriff to avoid a planned raid by the incumbent. The businessman’s money went straight to Dowless, who he said carried out similar tactics with the absentee ballots.
The GOP candidate for sheriff won that election by about 350 votes, and the businessman alleged that Dowless ultimately was responsible for about 800 absentee votes.
And after all of that — the new sheriff raided the acquiescent businessman’s offices anyway.
Dowless brought his schemes to the 2016 primary, where he worked for Todd Johnson in the Republican primary.
Johnson lost the primary, but not before receiving 211 Bladen mail-in votes — compared to four for Harris and one for Pittenger.
Meanwhile, Dowless was also running his own political campaign for the Bladen County Soil and Water Conservation District board. Democrats tried to unseat him with a write-in campaign — prompting him to lodge a protest with the Bladen County Board of Elections.
“This is the shocking evidence resulting from a blatant scheme to try to impact the voting results of an entire county and perhaps even sway statewide and federal elections,” Dowless wrote.
The North Carolina board of elections ultimately rejected the complaint.
By the time 2018 rolled around, it seems that Dowless’ operation was an open secret, at least among local Republicans.
“It’s been out there — we were fully aware of it,” Pittinger, who has by this point lost the GOP primary, told a reporter of claims of voter irregularities in the district.
“There’s some pretty unsavory people out, particularly in Bladen County,” he added. “And I didn’t have anything to do with them.”