AP NEWS

Timeline: North Carolina’s absentee ballot scandal

February 27, 2019
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FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2018 file photo, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, N.C. The North Carolina political operative at the center of a ballot fraud scandal is facing criminal charges for his activities in the 2016 elections and the Republican primary in 2018. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, that Dowless was arrested after grand jury indictments alleging illegal possession of absentee ballots and obstruction of justice. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — An operative in North Carolina’s unresolved congressional race was charged Wednesday with obstruction and illegal ballot possession related to 2016 and 2018 elections.

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. had been the target of multiple investigations into his election activities over the years, but none had yielded any charges until now.

Here is a timeline of what led to this point:

A NARROW DEFEAT -- JUNE 7, 2016

Republican Mark Harris was narrowly defeated by incumbent U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger in the GOP primary for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

Among those working for the third-place candidate Todd Johnson was political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless, who focused on securing mailed-in absentee votes.

Despite finishing in third with about 30 percent of the overall vote, Johnson got an incredible 98 percent of Bladen County’s mailed-in absentee votes.

Harris later said he discussed with a campaign attorney to protest the anomalous result, but ultimately decided to drop the matter.

MEMO REFERRED -- JAN. 31, 2017

A January 2017 memo by state elections investigators referred Dowless for criminal charges , warning that those involved in illegally harvesting absentee ballots in rural Bladen County would likely do it again if they weren’t prosecuted.

People who had worked for Dowless in the 2016 election cycle described collecting absentee ballots from voters. Because of the potential for mischief, it is against North Carolina law for anyone other than a voter or immediate relative to handle someone’s absentee ballot before it is sealed and mailed.

Federal prosecutors, however, have so far taken no action.

The extent of the state’s investigation was not reported until December 2018.

DOWLESS AND HARRIS MEET -- APRIL 2017

Shortly after an in-person meeting in April 2017, Dowless joined the Harris campaign as an independent contractor.

Harris later said he recruited Dowless because he produced election results in his rural North Carolina county and other Republicans vouched for the contractor.

Harris said he didn’t know before November’s election that state elections board investigators found evidence that Dowless may have illegally handled ballots in 2016.

Harris told the AP that a background check by his political consultants missed Dowless’ previous felony convictions for insurance fraud and perjury in the 1990s.

A RAZOR-THIN VICTORY? -- NOV. 6, 2018

Unofficial ballot totals showed Republican Mark Harris ahead of Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in the 9th Congressional District.

It was one of the closest margins among the hundreds of congressional races around the country. McCready conceded the next day.

RESULT NOT FINALIZED -- NOV. 27, 2018

North Carolina’s elections board delayed finalizing the results of the 9th District race.

Officials agreed to hold a public hearing into alleged “numerous irregularities” and “concerted fraudulent activities” involving traditional mail-in absentee ballots in the race.

A copy of the Bladen election board’s log book later shows Dowless turned in well over 500 absentee ballot applications.

CONCESSION WITHDRAWN -- DEC. 6, 2018

McCready withdrew his concession as state election officials continued to investigate allegations of absentee ballot fraud.

McCready, an Iraq War veteran, said “I didn’t serve overseas in the Marine Corps just to come back and watch politicians and career criminals attack our democracy.”

SON’S SURPRISE TESTIMONY -- FEB. 20, 2019

Harris’ son said he had warned his parents that he thought Dowless used shady methods and should be avoided.

John Harris’ testimony at a state elections board special hearing contradicted his father’s public statements that he never suspected his campaign deployed an operative who collected ballots by the bundle and turned them in when he wanted.

John Harris said he warned his father even before the 2018 primary campaign that he didn’t trust Dowless. John Harris said he thinks Dowless lied about his methods and his parents believed him.

NEW ELECTION ORDERED -- FEB. 21, 2019

North Carolina’s elections board ordered a new election after Harris conceded his lead was tainted by evidence of ballot-tampering.

The State Board of Elections voted 5-0 in favor of a do-over in the 9th District but did not immediately set a date.

The board action came after Harris, in a surprising turn, dropped his bid to be declared the winner and instead called for a new election. He also cited a blood infection that required hospitalization and led to two strokes.

HARRIS NOT RUNNING -- FEB. 26, 2019

Harris announced he will not run in the do-over election , saying he needs surgery next month.

Harris’ announcement focused on his health problems and did not mention the absentee ballot scandal.

Harris encouraged supporters to rally around Republican Stony Rushing, a commissioner in Union County in the Charlotte suburbs.

McCready has been assembling a new campaign staff and raising money to run again in the district.

CHARGES FILED -- FEB. 27, 2019

Dowless was arrested on charges of illegal ballot handling and conspiracy. Four people working for him were also charged.

He is accused of directing workers to collect and mail in other people’s absentee ballots during the 2018 Republican congressional primary and the 2016 general election.

Dowless has denied any wrongdoing and did not immediately respond to phone and text messages.