Nick Ochsner & Michael Graff: Documenting what led to the 2018 election fraud scandal in Bladen County (“1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
Their new book “The Vote Collectors” is available now
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - After working separately for weeks to cover the allegations of election fraud in North Carolina’s 2018 Ninth Congressional District election, reporters Nick Ochsner and Michael Graff came to a conclusion. They had uncovered and gathered so much information, and heard a myriad of tales about other instances of political underhandedness in Bladen County by operatives including McCrae Dowless, a larger story needed to be told.
“I actually said it out loud to McCrae Dowless,” said Ochsner, the Chief Investigative Reporter at WBTV-TV in Charlotte. “I can’t remember the exact moment, but it was sometime in December 2018 and I was standing in McRae Dowless’s kitchen, talking to McRae and maybe one other person. I don’t remember what was going on. But I said, ‘This story is so crazy, someone is going to write a book about this, and maybe it oughta be me’. I’m a TV guy, what do I know about writing a book? But here we are.”
“I worked on the story for Politico Magazine about the scandal and spent about a week there (in Bladen County) and met Nick there in front of the courthouse in Elizabethtown one day,” remembered Graff, who now works as an editor at Axios Charlotte. “We were both reporting the story from different perspectives, of course. Then about two months later we decided, ‘Let’s take our two sets of skills and put them together and try to put something good together for people’.”
The result of their combined effort is the new book The Vote Collectors: The True Story of the Scamsters, Politicians and Preachers behind the Nation’s Greatest Electoral Fraud. It’s the result of countless hours of leg work, dozens of interviews, perusing historical accounts, evidence and public records to document what led up to the scandal that ultimately cost Mark Harris his seat in Congress, and resulted in criminal charges against Dowless and several members of his organization.
The man at the center of the story is McCrae Dowless. A Supervisor on the Bladen County Soil and Water Conservation Board at the time, he had developed a skill for helping candidates get elected in Bladen County. Ochsner and Graff detail how Dowless got involved with politics, many years before he won the supervisor’s seat in 2012.
“Really, he got into politics to get even with the district attorney who sent him to prison back in the 80s,” said Ochsner, who cultivated a relationship with Dowless and used him as a confidential source through most of his reporting for WBTV’s newscasts and website. “McCrae Dowless is a convicted felon. He was convicted for insurance fraud because him and his then fiancé, I think she was at the time, got an insurance policy out on a dead man then cashed in the insurance policy and got a big payday. He felt he was prosecuted more aggressively than the fiancé who he says put him up to doing that. He felt that was unfair. So, he got out of prison and he said, ‘Well I know what I can do to get back at the district attorney, I can unseat him from his office’. That’s how he got into politics. Understanding the person who McRae Dowless is, is important to understanding the story of what happened in 2018.”
Mark Harris, a successful minister from Mecklenberg County, paid Dowless to assist his campaign for the seat representing North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District, which stretched from metropolitan Charlotte to rural Elizabethtown. When the votes were counted, Harris had defeated Dan McCready by less than one thousand votes. However, the state Board of Elections refused to certify the results out of Bladen County, because of allegations of fraud in handling absentee ballots. The book chronicles how Harris went to Washington, DC, to begin his transition to congressman, while in North Carolina the investigation began to unravel the scheme of Dowless’ operation to illegally collect absentee ballots and submit them to the Bladen County Board of Elections. It ultimately led to a new election, a new congressman, and criminal charges. I asked Graff how close he thought Dowless and his workers came to succeeding.
“We’re still wondering whether his day in court will show that he’s going to jail, so I guess we don’t know yet,” Graff said. “But I think the larger story is that it has been going on in Bladen County for years and so folks have been pulling it off for years. I think the real strange thing is that that it got stopped this time. That’s the crazy thing. That’s a really interesting way to look at it, because I hadn’t thought about it that way. My thought was, ‘They always pull it off! Everybody pulls it off all the time there!’ So, the crazy thing was that it got stopped this time.”
Graff and Ochsner don’t focus solely on the NC9 election scandal. Their work delves into the backstories of how Bladen County’s political saga began, the relationships born out of generations of influence dating back to before the 1898 riots in nearby Wilmington, when the first Black men were elected as a County Commissioner and as a member of Congress. The two reporters connect the dots between reconstruction and present day, weaving in familiar names to show the wide-ranging impact of historical events. They also look closely at actions of elections officials at the local and state levels, how calls for investigations into similar election irregularities in Bladen County largely went unheeded until the political climate in 2018 forced the issue.
“2018 absolutely did not have to happen the way it did,” Graff said. “The State Board of Elections put together a report about 2016 saying, ‘You guys need to look into this!’ Telling the U.S. Attorney, ‘Look into this!’ The U.S. Attorney did not look into it. That’s very clear.”
“There is always this speculation and always these rumors of fraud,” Ochsner, who grew up in nearby Hope Mills, said about the backstories. “We saw in 2016 where the Pat McCrory campaign used McCrae Dowless to file a complaint in a longshot effort to question the results of the 2016 gubernatorial race that he had lost, and that resulted in nothing. Well, it actually resulted in 300 pages of investigative files that got ignored. But functionally nothing, publicly. We’ve heard this for a long time and the first words that I said in person to McCrae Dowless when I got to his driveway the first time I met him was, ‘I don’t know what you have or haven’t done. But I know you’re not the only person whose done it’. I still believe that. I think what we talked about in the book proves that out to be true.”
If you follow politics in North Carolina, I believe The Vote Collectors is a must-read. Graff and Ochsner provide more details than most of us knew about the events leading up to and after the election fraud scandal, and how investigators ultimately connected the major players. Readers will also get to know rural Bladen County, where political operations that would raise eyebrows in other counties barely register a shoulder shrug. I hope you enjoy my conversation with these two journalists, and their book, as much as I did.
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