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The Journal Gazette

Friday, December 07, 2018 1:00 am

North Carolina GOP was told of ballot stuffing fears

Amy Gardner and Beth Reinhard | Washington Post

BLADENBORO, N.C. – When GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger lost his primary by a narrow margin in May, he suspected something was amiss.

The congressman turned to a group of friends and family who had gathered with him on election night at a steakhouse near Charlotte, North Carolina, and blamed the “ballot stuffers in Bladen,” according to three people at the gathering.

Pittenger's concern stemmed from the vote tallies in rural Bladen County, North Carolina, where his challenger, a pastor from the Charlotte suburbs named Mark Harris, had won 437 absentee mail-in votes. Pittenger, a three-term incumbent, had received just 17.

In the days immediately after the race, aides to Pittenger told the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party and a regional political director for the National Republican Congressional Committee that they believed fraud had occurred, according to people familiar with their discussions.

GOP officials did little to scrutinize the results, instead turning their attention to Harris' general-election campaign against a well-funded Democratic opponent, the people said.

Their accounts provide the first indication that state and national Republican officials received early warnings about voting irregularities in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, now the subject of multiple criminal probes.

A spokesman for the NRCC denied that Pittenger's campaign raised the possibility of fraud in the primary.

Allegations of fraud in November's general election have now put the outcome of the 9th Congressional District race in limbo. State investigators are examining the activities of a political operative named Leslie McCrae Dowless, who ran a get-out-the-vote effort for the Harris campaign during the primary and general elections.

While the investigation continues, the elections board has declined to certify the 9th District race, in which Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, according to unofficial results.

On Thursday, McCready told television station WSOC that he was withdrawing his concession and accused Harris of bankrolling “criminal activity.”

Dowless, who has worked on political campaigns in Bladen for at least a decade, touts his ability to mobilize voters to cast ballots by mail, according to people who know him. He has been under scrutiny by state officials since 2016, when allegations surfaced about illegal ballot harvesting in that year's campaigns, leading to a public hearing.

Dowless, who told the Charlotte Observer that he did not commit any wrongdoing, declined to comment Thursday.

Since reports of irregularities in the 9th District emerged last month, GOP leaders – including Dallas Woodhouse, the state GOP executive director – initially played down concerns that laws were broken. They repeatedly asserted that any voting irregularities were not widespread enough to change the outcome of the election.

In recent days, amid mounting allegations of a ballot-harvesting operation, state Republicans have shifted their rhetoric.

Woodhouse told The Post on Thursday that if the state elections board can “show a substantial likelihood” that possible fraud could have changed the outcome of November's vote, “then we fully would support a new election.”

The state elections board is investigating irregularities in mail-in balloting in the 9th District general election – many of them in Bladen County, which had the highest share of mail-in votes in the district, state records show.

Investigators have spoken with witnesses who link Dowless to an effort to collect absentee ballots from voters and are examining whether he or his associates filled out ballots or discarded them, according to people familiar with the probe. It is illegal to collect or tamper with someone else's ballot.