‘Tangled web’ in Bladen County has questions swirling about votes in the 9th District

GF Default - FULL INTERVIEW: One-on-one with Congressional District 9 candidate Mark Harris
GF Default - FULL INTERVIEW: One-on-one with Congressional District 9 candidate Mark Harris
Updated: Nov. 29, 2018 at 9:18 PM EST
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BLADEN COUNTY, NC (Jim Morrill/The Charlotte Observer) - Allegations of voting irregularities in and around Bladen County swirled on Thursday, with the North Carolina Democratic Party calling for an official hearing and a flurry of affidavits surfacing involving absentee ballots.

The allegations are apparently behind this week’s decision by the State Board of Elections and Ethics Reform to not certify the results of the congressional race in the 9th District.

The decision came after board member Joshua Malcolm of Robeson County cited what he called “unfortunate activities” in that part of the district. The board voted 9-0 not to certify the 9th District results.

Republican Mark Harris beat Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. He carried Bladen County by 1,557 votes.

The man at the center of speculation about the alleged activities, McCrae Dowless, was paid by the Harris campaign as a contractor for the candidate’s top consultant.

In a letter to the chairman of the state elections board, Democratic Party attorney John Wallace urged the board to delay certification beyond Friday’s scheduled meeting.

“After pulling the fire alarm on Tuesday, the State Board cannot in good conscience certify the election three days later, when so much smoke continues to hang over this election,” he wrote.

Wallace went on to say a review of public records “confirms that serious irregularities and improprieties may have occurred.” Bladen County had the highest percentage of absentee ballot requests in the state. There, 7.5 percent of registered voters requested absentee ballots. In most counties it was less than 3 percent.

An analysis by Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer suggested more aberrations.

In seven of the eight counties in the 9th District, for example, McCready won a lopsided majority of the mailed-in absentee ballots. But not in Bladen County. There, Republican Mark Harris won 61 percent even though registered Republicans accounted for only 19 percent of the county’s accepted absentee ballots.

Unaffiliated voters accounted for 39 percent. Bitzer said Harris’ margin “could potentially come from all those unaffiliated voters.”

“But to have each and every one of those unaffiliated voters vote Republican, that’s pretty astonishing,” he added. “If that’s the case, there’s a very concerted effort to use that method to one candidate’s advantage. . . . But at that level there’s something else beyond a concerted effort that could be at work.”

In his letter to the board, Wallace included notarized affidavits from a handful of voters:

  • Datesha Montgomery said that on Oct. 12, a woman came by her house and told her she was collecting absentee ballots. In the affidavit, Montgomery said she voted for two candidates: one for sheriff, the other for school board. The woman told her “the others were not important. I gave her the ballot and she said she would finish it herself. I signed the ballot and she left. It was not sealed up at any time.”
  • Emma Shipman said a woman came to her house and told her she was assigned to collect absentee ballots. “I filled out the ballot while she waited outside and gave it to her. . . . She took the ballot and put it in an envelope and never sealed it or asked me to sign it. Then she left. . . . I thought she was legitimate.”
  • Lucy Young said she received an absentee ballot even though she didn’t request one. She’d already voted early in person.

In 2016, then-Gov. Pat McCrory complained about what he called a “massive voting fraud scheme” in Bladen County. At the time, there was a protest filed by Dowless, a soil and water district supervisor. He claimed irregularities in mail-in absentee ballots.

This year he worked as a contractor for Huntersville-based Red Dome group, according to founder Andy Yates.

He was an independent contractor who worked on grassroots for the campaign, independent of the campaign . . . as he’s done for a number of campaigns over the years,” said Yates, Harris’ top strategist.

In this year’s primary, Harris won 437 absentee votes in Bladen to 17 for GOP incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger. This month Harris won 420 absentee votes to McCready’s 258.

In the 2016 congressional primary, Dowless worked for Todd Johnson. Johnson got 221 absentee votes to 4 for Harris and 1 for Pittenger. In the district as a whole, Johnson finished third.

Dwight Sheppard, a fire investigator from Bladen County who also gave the Democratic Party an affidavit, said he believes Dowless is in the thick of the controversy. Dowless has denied any wrongdoing.

“It’s a tangled web when you start getting into it,” Sheppard told the Observer.

In the primary, Harris carried Bladen County by 852 votes. In the district, he defeated Pittenger by 828 votes.

Asked by text if he blamed his loss on any voting irregularities, Pittenger said, “Others can determine that. I won’t speculate.”

“Look at the votes,” he added. “Follow the money.”