BLADEN COUNTY, NC (WECT) - A convicted felon who has done prison time after convictions for fraud and perjury, personally turned in hundreds of absentee ballot requests in Bladen County leading up to the November election, according to documents uncovered by WECT.
Compared to statewide averages, an unusually high number of absentee ballots were requested in Bladen County.
Also noteworthy, out of the 1700-plus absentee ballots that were requested in Bladen County, Bladen County Board of Elections Vice Chairman Jens Lutz says only 804 were returned. A log at the board of elections shows 182 were returned by hand to the Bladen County Board of Elections. More than 600 were returned by mail. The whereabouts of nearly 1,000 other requested absentee ballots is unclear.
According to documents, McCrae Dowless personally turned in hundreds of absentee ballot requests. Dowless was contracted to work for Republican Mark Harris’ congressional campaign, in a district that stretches from Charlotte to Bladen County.
Harris won Bladen County in an oddly lopsided vote for a county that has three times more registered Democrats than Republicans. Notably, Harris won over 90 percent of votes cast by absentee ballot in Bladen County. Harris went on to beat his Democratic challenger on election night by less than 1,000 votes district-wide.
Due to allegations of fraud, some specifically calling Dowless the orchestrator of an absentee ballot mill, the State Board of Elections voted to hold a public hearing on the matter before December 21st. They have seized absentee ballot envelopes from Bladen County as part of their investigation.
Dowless did not return repeated calls for comment Monday about the claims against him. According to published reports, Dowless forged life insurance documents after one of his employees was killed in a car crash in the 1980s, naming himself as the beneficiary. The reports claim Dowless collected more than $160,000 in insurance payments before he was caught and eventually sent to prison.
He has worked for a number of political campaigns over the years, and a sworn affidavit filed with the State Board of Elections alleged Dowless said he’d be paid $40,000 if Harris won the election.
In the midst of the recent fraud allegations, the director of the Bladen County Board of Elections and the Chairman of the State Board of Elections have resigned from their positions.
Bladen County Board of Elections Vice Chair Jens Lutz says concerning behavior by campaign workers has been going on for years in Bladen County. He thinks the only reason people are finally paying such close attention is this alleged tampering may have impacted the outcome of a federal election. Lutz says his bi-partisan board has unanimously asked county commissioners to install tighter security at the Board of Elections, and Homeland Security has made the same recommendations. But so far, Lutz says county commissioners have refused to put the issue on their agenda.
“There’s a reason that things are the way they are.... It’s just a very loosely run operation [at the Board of Elections], and speaking from a security standpoint it befuddles me how it’s run this long without any problems and I think we do have problems and this is why we are at where we are today.”
Lutz says the Board of Elections shares an office with Veterans Affairs, which means there is potentially 24 hour access to their building by people who may not be authorized to be there. He says there is no security system, no security doors to parts of their office that house sensitive elections material, and that the security cameras have not been operational in at least five years.
He is relieved that the state is taking this seriously.
"This is an important issue and it's something that needs to be dealt with. It's been going on we know since 2014, and maybe now we're finally at the point something will be done," Lutz told WECT.