Disputed North Carolina Race May Hinge on a Shadowy Operative

LUMBERTON, N.C. — L. McCrae Dowless Jr. was a peculiar politician when he stood before the North Carolina State Board of Elections: a runaway winner who had come to the capital to fan fears of fraud and to protest the outcome of a race in which he had been victorious.

“I’m not saying there’s any wrongdoing here,” Mr. Dowless, who had been elected a soil and water conservation district supervisor, told the Raleigh-based board in December 2016. “I just want it investigated because it was a high volume of write-ins.”

Just two years later, Mr. Dowless, a bit player in North Carolina’s incessant battles over voting rules and alleged fraud, is at the center of a spiraling battle over whether deceit and misconduct corrupted the campaign for Congress in the Ninth District.

State regulators have refused to certify the preliminary results, which showed the Republican nominee, Mark Harris, with a 905-vote edge over Dan McCready, his Democratic opponent. If state officials ultimately find that the balloting was tainted enough to “cast doubt” on the results, they would have the power to order a new election.

The dispute — and the identity of the Ninth District’s next congressman — may not be settled for weeks, and it may ultimately be resolved by the House of Representatives itself, which has the constitutional authority to be “the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members.”

But the alleged and acknowledged machinations of Mr. Dowless, who has a felony record and a history of financial fraud, have produced yet another bitter electoral impasse in a state that seems perpetually engulfed by them.

Elections regulators are poised to hold an evidentiary hearing this month. Investigators have already begun questioning witnesses about what Joshua Malcolm, who was named on Monday as the election board’s chairman, described last week as “claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities” with regard to absentee ballots in rural parts of the district.

State officials are particularly concerned that people working on behalf of Mr. Harris’s campaign picked up, or “harvested,” absentee ballots, a crime under North Carolina law. In one affidavit, a Bladen County resident, Emma Shipman, wrote that she had handed over her ballot to a woman who told her she was assigned to collect ballots in the district. Another voter wrote that she had handed over her incomplete ballot to a woman, who promised she would finish it.

The practice raised questions about whether ballots could have been improperly submitted for the Republican candidate or discarded if they were marked for the Democratic nominee.

Whatever the case, Bladen County, a largely rural county in the district, recorded the state’s highest rate of absentee ballot requests: 7.5 percent of registered voters, compared with less than 3 percent in most counties. An unusually large number of them, 40 percent, were never returned. In neighboring Robeson County, 62 percent were not returned. No other county had a rate higher than 27 percent.

Mr. Harris won 61 percent of submitted absentee ballots in Bladen County, even though registered Republicans accounted for only 19 percent of the ballots submitted.

Perhaps no figure is more central to the allegations than Mr. Dowless, who was assigned to work on get-out-the-vote efforts in the eastern part of the Ninth District, which runs from Charlotte to east of Fayetteville. Mr. Dowless, one resident wrote in an affidavit, was rumored to be in line for a bonus of $40,000 if Mr. Harris defeated Mr. McCready, and he routinely worked in this area.

Mr. Dowless, 62, could not be reached for comment, and Mr. Harris has said he will “support any efforts to investigate allegations of irregularities and/or voter fraud, as long as it is fair and focuses on all political parties.” And although Republicans have threatened litigation to try to compel the state to certify the election results immediately, they have yet to bring a lawsuit.

But in enlisting Mr. Dowless, who was hired as a contractor by Mr. Harris’s consultants, the Republican campaign had signed on a man with some political knowledge but a blemished personal history.

He was deeply familiar with the mechanics of the get-out-the-vote efforts on which candidates rely: State records show that beginning in 2009, at least seven Democratic and Republican candidates paid him for work in local and state races, including campaigns for the Legislature, district attorney and county sheriff. Separately, campaign finance records in Mecklenburg County showed that Mr. Dowless worked for a City Council candidate in Charlotte, the state’s largest city.

“He was just a known figure,” said former State Representative Ken Waddell, a Democrat who hired Mr. Dowless after receiving a recommendation. “To me, it appeared like he just liked politics.”

Mr. Waddell had no complaints about Mr. Dowless’s integrity during the campaign, but recalled disagreements about where to place signs in the district. Years earlier, though, Mr. Dowless’s character had come into question after one of his employees died in an automobile accident.

The Fayetteville Observer reported in 1991 that Mr. Dowless and the woman he eventually married had, after the employee’s death, taken out a six-figure life insurance policy in the man’s name by forging a signature and backdating a document. Mr. Dowless listed himself as the primary beneficiary and collected benefits.

Mr. Dowless was eventually sentenced to a short prison term, and state records show convictions for, among other offenses, perjury and fraud.

But after prison, Mr. Dowless pursued, at least in part, a life in politics. As a Democrat, he sought a seat on the local school board in 2014 and was defeated in a primary. He was unaffiliated when he ran for the soil and water conservation district board in 2016, only to switch his party registration to Republican after the election.

The election results, though, had already raised concerns in and around Bladen County. Although Mr. Dowless was running unopposed, about a third of the vote went to write-in candidates. Encouraged and aided by the then-chairman of the county Republican Party, he submitted a protest to the state and argued that there was “a pattern of fraudulent ballots.”

But Mr. Dowless did not appear to know all that much about it when the state elections board convened a hearing.

Asked for the name of the lawyer who helped him to prepare his protest, Mr. Dowless recalled him only as “Steve.” (The lawyer also represented Gov. Pat McCrory, whose bid for re-election would soon end in a narrow defeat.)

Asked whether he knew how to obtain the financial disclosure reports of the political action committee that he, in his protest, had suggested was behind “a massive scheme to run an absentee ballot mill,” Mr. Dowless said he did not.

At one point, a member of the board pointedly asked, “Are you familiar with your protest?” Mr. Dowless, who invoked the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination when he chose not to answer a question, said that he was.

The board, whose questioning eventually raised concerns about Mr. Dowless’s own efforts to pursue absentee ballots in 2016, dismissed the protest because of “a lack of substantial evidence of a violation of election law or other irregularity or misconduct sufficient to cast doubt on the results of the election.”

The same standard will apply now, as the state board, itself jolted and upended by political turbulence in recent years, decides how to referee North Carolina’s latest electoral storm.

Maggie Astor contributed reporting from New York.

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