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?

Bruno: In addition to NC-09, the NCSBE refused to certify two local races in Bladen and Robeson counties so that gives us an idea of where the scope of the investigation is. There were more than 3,400 unreturned absentee ballots from Bladen and Robeson counties. What happened to those votes? As I mentioned, one of the affidavits claims Dowless was working from Cumberland County to Charlotte. What did he do in those counties? We don’t know. Of note though, according to state law there does not have to be more fraud than the margin of victory in order for there to be a new election ordered. A new election can be ordered if “irregularities or improprieties occurred to such an extent that they taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.

Cillizza: What’s the recourse if Dowless is found to have broken the law? Is a new election on the table? And, if so, when might that happen?

Bruno: According to Gerry Cohen, former special counsel for the [North Carolina] general assembly, if NCSBE orders a new election it is back to the same three candidates, Republican Mark Harris, Democrat Dan McCready and Libertarian Jeff Scott. These candidates can only be replaced on the ballot if they move out of state. If the incoming US House orders a new election, that means there will be a new filing, primary and general election. Federal law mandates at least 45 days for absentee voting. There is an evidentiary hearing scheduled by the NCSBE to happen on or before December 21. There is no timeline for when everything has to wrap up by. The NCSBE has said though they are aware of the January 3 date for swearing in.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “When the 116th Congress convenes in January, the 9th District in North Carolina will be represented by ____________?” Now, explain.

Bruno: My official answer is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

If you ask other people who are following this closely they will likely say the same thing. I will just say this: The investigation does not look like it will come to a close any time soon. Every day it seems to take a new turn. There’s a chance the 9th District will have no representation in January. In today’s political environment, it is clear whoever ends up representing the 9th District will have an asterisk by their name in the minds of many.

Some other thoughts if you want them: I have covered the 9th District race from the beginning. Many people thought incumbent Robert Pittenger had in the bag. Polls had him up big. Mark Harris’ victory was viewed by many as a big upset. So much so, many TV stations didn’t have his primary election night staffed until the results started to come in and he looked like he was going to win. The 9th District race was like many others that played out in 2018. Harris, the Republican candidate, tied himself to President Donald Trump. His pitch to voters was to put him in office to continue the President’s agenda. Dan McCready ran a Conor Lamb/Joe Cunningham-style campaign. He vowed to not vote for Nancy Pelosi. His pitch to voters was “country over party.” Did the message resonate? Seems like it. Trump won the district by 12 points in 2016. McCready finished behind Harris by 905 votes.