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Robeson County sounded alarms last summer – now state is investigating election

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The investigation into election fraud in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District now includes at least two counties — Bladen and Robeson.

Investigators from the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement returned to the Robeson County Board of Elections on Tuesday to collect more information about the local board’s procedures. The state board had earlier collected absentee ballot envelopes and the identification of at least one person who dropped off absentee applications.

The state board has twice declined to certify the results of Republican Mark Harris’ apparent 905-vote victory over Democrat Dan McCready, citing “claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities related to absentee mail ballots.” The board plans to hold an evidentiary hearing in the next three weeks.

The Robeson County Board of Elections had concerns early in the campaign season about people dropping off large numbers of voter registration forms and absentee ballot applications.

“It wasn’t a single person,” Steve Stone, the board’s chairman, told The News & Observer on Tuesday in a phone interview. “There were several different players ... going door-to-door. They were getting paid to do that.”

Collecting and delivering applications for absentee ballots isn’t illegal. But the volume of applications in the summer — as many as 50 to 70 at a time in July — raised eyebrows at his office because “in 16 years, it was kind of unusual. Too heavy, too early.”

Stone said his office sent out approximately 2,300 absentee ballots. According to the state board, 1,197 were not returned.

Of those unreturned ballots in Robeson, 822 were sent to registered Democrats and 78 were sent to registered Republicans. In Bladen County, the numbers were 167 for Democrats and 121 for Republicans. Overall in the district, 1,873 unreturned absentee ballots were sent to Democrats and 519 unreturned absentee ballots were sent to Republicans, according to a News & Observer analysis of the data.

Voters in Robeson reported being told their voter registrations were no longer valid and that they had been removed from the rolls. Those coming to their doors wore a lanyard that said “Election Project” and offered to take in applications for absentee ballots at the same time as new registration forms, Stone said.

“Common sense kicked in,” Stone said.

Voters called his office to find out why they’d been removed and discovered they had not. Other voters called to ask why they’d been sent absentee ballots when they typically vote on Election Day. Still others arrived at their polling location on Election Day and learned they’d been placed in the absentee category.

Stone said those voters were still able to vote.

Elderly voters and those in less affluent neighborhoods were the most affected, Stone said. He said three or five people were bringing in applications in bulk and that near the absentee deadline a box came in with approximately 500 applications, some dated months earlier.

The Robeson County office received about 1,000 voter registration forms from people who were already registered, Stone said.

Robeson voters

In Robeson County, Yomayra Torres Rosado said she and her husband Luis Reyes decided to vote absentee this fall after someone from the Mark Harris campaign stopped by their house on Marion Road outside St. Pauls with absentee ballot application forms. Torres Rosado said Jennifer Boyd spoke to them about the candidates and that the couple decided to vote for Harris after hearing what she had to say.

After the ballots arrived and the couple filled them out, Boyd returned to pick them up, Torres Rosado said. She said Boyd signed the envelopes to witness the votes, but left only with Reyes’ ballot, because Torres Rosado wasn’t there to sign hers. Torres Rosado still has the ballot, with Boyd’s signature on the envelope.

Others in the area said Boyd had helped them get absentee ballots as well. Jessica Pelletier and her husband Athan Ackerley weren’t planning to vote this year until Boyd, their neighbor, came by with the absentee ballot forms.

“We just did it because she was going around and we were just helping her out,” Pelletier, 28, said Tuesday.

She said the couple mailed in the completed ballots themselves.

Boyd was not home Tuesday afternoon, and a woman who answered her phone in the evening took a message that was not returned.

Other voters in the area reported turning their completed absentee ballots over to someone else.

Robin Bradford of Gentle Wind Drive said a woman helped her get an absentee ballot and returned to pick it up in a sealed envelope. Bradford, 63, described the woman as a “friend of the family,” but declined to identify her.

“There was nothing shady,” she said. “I voted what I wanted to vote, and she never looked.”

Under North Carolina law, it is a felony “for any person to take into that person’s possession for delivery to a voter or for return to a county board of elections the absentee ballot of any voter, provided, however, that this prohibition shall not apply to a voter’s near relative or the voter’s legal guardian.”

Bladen turn-ins

Stone’s office notified the state board in the summer and learned there were problems in Bladen County.

The state board sent letters in late October and early November to each absentee-by-mail voter who had requested a ballot in Bladen County. The letter included information about the rights of absentee voters, including a warning that “election officials will never come to your house to pick up your absentee ballot or tell you how to vote.”

The state board released some documents from its investigation Tuesday. Among the documents were logs from Bladen County of absentee application requests from Aug. 22 through Oct. 30.

Lola Wooten turned in 230 absentee applications at the Bladen County Board of Elections.

Wooten, who is African American, said she went to registered Democrats to help them get absentee ballots.

“Go out to people that can’t get out, can’t get to the polls,” Wooten said in a telephone interview with The News & Observer. “There’s no law against that.”

Once it receives the application and verifies that the voter is eligible, Bladen County sends the voter an absentee ballot, said Cynthia Shaw, the director of Bladen County’s election board.

Wooten said she did not go out to collect completed ballots.

“Oh, no. No, no. That’s against the law. Never did that,” she said.

She said she was not paid by the Democratic Party or any candidate.

McCrae Dowless turned in applications for 590 absentee ballots, according to the logs released by the state board.

RAL_ McCrae_Dowless_JMW_01.JPG
Leslie McCrae Dowless poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, NC. on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. Dowless is suspected of committing absentee ballot voter fraud in the congressional race between republican Mark Harris and democrat Dan McCready for NC’s 9th district. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

“Anybody can do that,” said Gerry Cohen, a longtime special counsel to the North Carolina General Assembly and an election law expert. “There’s no law preventing you from turning in absentee applications.”

In sworn affidavits submitted by the Democratic Party, voters claim people came to collect their absentee ballots in Bladen County — and voters have told similar stories to reporters on the ground.

Stacy Holcomb of Bladenboro said a woman wearing a Mark Harris T-shirt came by his apartment asking if he wanted to vote by mail with an absentee ballot. The ballot arrived by mail. Then he gave the woman his marked, sealed ballot after it arrived.

“I wish now I’d sent mine through the mail instead of giving it to her,” Holcomb said.

Holcomb is listed in election records as voting absentee.

Leslie McCrae Dowless poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, NC on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. Dowless is suspected of committing absentee ballot voter fraud in the congressional race between republican Mark Harris and democrat Dan McCready for NC’s 9th district. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com@newsobser

Two women, in interviews with WSOC-TV, said they were paid by Dowless to collect ballots and they took the ballots to him.

“It ain’t nothing new. (Dowless has) been doing it. It’s simple as that. They’ve been letting him get away with it. That’s nothing new,” Wooten told the N&O. “It’s been going on. It should have been nipped in the bud years ago. It’s a buddy-buddy system here.”

Dowless has not returned numerous messages left on his voice mail.

U.S. House Democrats weighed in Tuesday on the uncertainty in North Carolina. Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat and the incoming House majority leader, said there is a “substantial question” about Harris’ apparent victory.

““Clearly we would oppose Mr. Harris’ being seated until that is resolved,” Hoyer told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat and, like McCready, an Iraq War veteran, called for a new election in a tweet. The state board can order a new election.

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.