CNN
Now playing
03:42
Criminal probe of alleged election fraud in NC
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) speaks during a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol on February 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. The House voted 230 to 199 on Friday evening to remove Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) from committee assignments over her remarks about QAnon and other conspiracy theories.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) speaks during a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol on February 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. The House voted 230 to 199 on Friday evening to remove Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) from committee assignments over her remarks about QAnon and other conspiracy theories.
Now playing
03:20
Marjorie Taylor Greene lashes out at media after backlash over controversial caucus
AP
Now playing
03:16
Maxine Waters: Jim Jordan is a bully and I shut him down
US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, leaves her office on Capitol Hill on February 4, 2021 in Washington, DC.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, leaves her office on Capitol Hill on February 4, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Now playing
03:51
Marjorie Taylor Greene launching 'America First' caucus
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on Russia at the White House in Washington, DC on April 15, 2021. - The United States announced sanctions and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats Thursday in retaliation for what Washington says is the Kremlin's US election interference, a massive cyberattack and other hostile activity.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on Russia at the White House in Washington, DC on April 15, 2021. - The United States announced sanctions and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats Thursday in retaliation for what Washington says is the Kremlin's US election interference, a massive cyberattack and other hostile activity.
Now playing
02:22
White House backtracks on refugees decision after criticism
Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House on April 14, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Andrew Harnik/Pool/Getty Images
Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House on April 14, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Now playing
02:44
'National embarrassment': Biden reacts to mass shootings
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL 15:  Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to talks to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a meeting with Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov in the Kremlin on April 15, 2013 in in Moscow, Russia. Karimov is on a state visit to Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL 15: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to talks to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a meeting with Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov in the Kremlin on April 15, 2013 in in Moscow, Russia. Karimov is on a state visit to Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:07
Russia to expel 10 US diplomats in 'tit-for-tat response' to Biden sanctions
Now playing
03:10
Avlon: Here's what we know 100 days since the Capitol riot
A Russian flag flies next to the US embassy building in Moscow on October 22, 2018. - US national security advisor John Bolton is in Moscow holding meetings with senior Russian officials following Washington's weekend announcement of withdrawal from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, known as the INF. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP)        (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images)
Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images
A Russian flag flies next to the US embassy building in Moscow on October 22, 2018. - US national security advisor John Bolton is in Moscow holding meetings with senior Russian officials following Washington's weekend announcement of withdrawal from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, known as the INF. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP) (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images)
Now playing
02:17
Political scientist: US-Russia relations are in the toilet
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 13: Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) speaks during a news conference on immigration to condemn the Trump Administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy, outside the US Capitol on June 13, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images)
Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 13: Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) speaks during a news conference on immigration to condemn the Trump Administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy, outside the US Capitol on June 13, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:39
Governor settles with former campaign staffer who accused her of sexual mistreatment
pool/cnn
Now playing
01:56
Hear what Dr. Gupta said when Cruz went maskless before
Now playing
02:30
Biden's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is personal for this lawmaker
President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, about the withdrawal of the remainder of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.=
Andrew Harnik/AP
President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, about the withdrawal of the remainder of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.=
Now playing
02:10
Why Biden made his Afghanistan announcement in this particular room
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on April 14, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden announced his plans to pull all remaining U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 in a final step towards ending America's longest war.
Andrew Harnik/Pool/Getty Images
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on April 14, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden announced his plans to pull all remaining U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 in a final step towards ending America's longest war.
Now playing
01:03
Biden: It's time to end the forever war
Kinzinger
CNN
Kinzinger
Now playing
05:56
What Republican lawmaker fears after US troops leave Afghanistan
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., questions witnesses during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Washington.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., questions witnesses during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Washington.
Now playing
02:59
Women detail late-night parties with Gaetz
(CNN) —  

It’s been nearly a month since the midterm elections, but in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, the search for a winner has only gotten murkier.

Republican Mark Harris was ahead of Democrat Dan McCready by only 905 votes after the ballots were counted. But state officials are now investigating allegations that absentee ballots were tampered with, and many of them were signed by the same small group of people – an unusual pattern that may indicate improper activity. Add to that mix a locally known Republican consultant who was previously convicted of fraud and an absentee ballot collector who alleges she was paid, and you’ve got a nightmare of confusion – as a congressional seat hangs in the balance.

So, what the heck is going on in the Tar Heel State? I reached out to Joe Bruno of WSOC Channel 9 in Charlotte, who is doing amazing work on the ground, uncovering new details in the alleged voter fraud investigation.

Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: Let’s start simple: What is the issue with the absentee ballots in Bladen County and what do we know as of right now?

Bruno: The bipartisan North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics is investigating “claims of irregularities and fraudulent activities related to absentee by-mail voting and potentially other matters in the 9th Congressional District contest.”

The board is composed of four Republicans, four Democrats and one unaffiliated member. The first vote to investigate the claims and not certify the results was unanimous. The second vote was 7-2, with two Republicans voting no. To this point all of the board’s discussions have been in closed session, so the specifics of the irregularities are still unclear. But records I’ve obtained shed more light on what happened.

Six affidavits I obtained last week go into detail about unusual and illegal activities surrounding absentee ballots. One person claims a woman came by her house to pick up her absentee-by-mail vote. When the woman picked up the vote it was unsealed and the voter did not sign it. Another person also claims a woman came by to pick up her vote. The voter only selected two races and claims the woman told her to not worry about the rest of them and that she would finish it for her. Other affidavits go into detail about absentee-by-mail ballots that they voters didn’t request. Lastly two affidavits introduce us to the man who appears to be at the center of this investigation, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr.

Cillizza: Who is Leslie McCrae Dowless – and what do we know about his role in the Harris campaign?

Bruno: Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. is the vice chair of the Bladen County Soil and Water Conservation District, an elected position. He is also an electioneer with a criminal past. His criminal record dates back to the 80s and 90s. He was convicted of passing a worthless check, perjury and felony fraud. He served six months behind bars. As I mentioned, McCrae’s name surfaced because of the affidavits. One affidavit claims to have heard McCrae would be paid $40,000 if Mark Harris won. In another affidavit, a person claims McCrae told him he was doing “absentee” for Mark Harris and Jim McVicker, the Bladen County Sheriff. The affidavit also says McCrae had 80 people working for him from Cumberland to Charlotte.

McCrae is well-known in Bladen County political circles. Campaign finance reports show his political involvement dates back to at least 2010 when he was working for a Bladen County district attorney candidate. A majority of the payments to him were for “get out the vote” efforts. The candidate he was working for won Bladen County. Over the next several years, McCrae was paid thousands of dollars by eastern North Carolina candidates for get out the vote efforts. But he didn’t just work for eastern NC candidates. Records show he was paid $800 by a Charlotte City Council candidate named Pete Givens for “consulting fees.” Givens and Harris are close friends. According to the Charlotte Observer, Harris introduced Givens to McCrae.

McCrae wasn’t always on Mark Harris’ team. Campaign finance records show McCrae worked for Todd Johnson in the 2016 Republican primary for the 9th District. Johnson was running against incumbent Robert Pittenger and Harris. Johnson finished last in the primary but first in Bladen County. A deeper look at the votes shows Johnson received 98% of the absentee-by-mail votes with a total of 221. Mark Harris received four votes. Incumbent Robert Pittenger received one vote.

In 2018, McCrae was hired by Red Dome, a political consulting firm working for the Harris campaign based in the Charlotte suburbs. The firm has been paid at least $428,000 from the Harris campaign. Disbursements are listed for admin and staff and grassroots. In 2018, Harris got more than four absentee-by-mail votes in Bladen County. Similar to Johnson, Harris put up huge absentee-by-mail numbers in the primary for Bladen County. Harris received 437 of 456 absentee-by-mail votes. Incumbent Pittenger only received 17.

In the general election against McCready, Harris received 61% of the absentee-by-mail votes in Bladen County. Bladen was the only county in the 9th District where Harris received more absentee-by-mail votes than McCready. An analysis by Dr. Michael Bitzer of Catawba College found “In Bladen County, 61% of the accepted absentee-by-mail ballots went Republican – the only county to do so; meaning that along with the almost 20% of loyal registered Republicans who voted that method, Harris would have also received almost all the registered unaffiliated voters and/or some Democratic registered voters to make it to 62% of the vote.”

So what was going on here? Well, as I mentioned before, affidavits claimed people were going around to pick up the absentee-by-mail ballots. One voter I interviewed who didn’t sign an affidavit, Stacy Holcomb, told me the woman who picked up his ballot was wearing a Mark Harris T-shirt.

So what was McCrae doing? A source provided me with photocopies of 159 submitted and accepted absentee-by-mail envelopes. Unless a notary is present, each ballot has to be signed by two witnesses. What we found was eight people signed as a witness for at least 10 ballots. Three people signed as a witness for more than 40 ballots. This in and of itself is rare. Think about it. When you submit an absentee ballot who are you likely to ask to be a witness? Probably a family member, neighbor or coworker. Here we have the same group of people signing as witnesses for ballots all over Bladen County. Many times together. I went down the list of the witnesses. Two people weren’t home. One person wasn’t a tenant at the address she claimed to live at. Then I met Ginger Eason. Eason told me she has been a friend of McCrae Dowless’ for a couple years. She said McCrae paid her $75 to $100 a week to pick up absentee ballots. This is illegal. What did she do with the ballots? She says she never saw who people voted for and she never discarded the ballots. But she didn’t mail them. She gave them to McCrae. When asked if all of the voters who gave her ballots had their votes sent to the elections office, she said she doesn’t know what happened to them after she gave them to McCrae. When asked if she was told to tell people about certain candidates she said Harris and Sheriff McVicker, that’s who McCrae was working for. She said McCrae had other people working for him too.

It took many days, phone calls and visits to McCrae’s house and office. Finally yesterday he poked his head out of his side door and told me, “I have no comment, have a great day,” as I fired off questions repeatedly. He eventually shut the door.

Cillizza: The two candidates are separated by just over 900 votes. Do we have any sense of how widespread this potential absentee ballots scam was? Could it flip the outcome?