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Distrustful, Desperate and Forgotten: A Recipe for Election Fraud

How a small rural county’s petty political feuds could shape the next Congress.

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Mark Harris, Chuck Burton/AP Photo

ELIZABETHTOWN, N.C.—In the back office of the only liquor store within 30 miles of this low-lying town in eastern North Carolina, behind a window where he can see out better than customers can see in, Mark Gillespie was paying bills. “They never stop,” the manager of the ABC Store said. He looked up occasionally to see who was coming in: friends and family, coaches from the Dixie Youth Baseball league program he runs, parents of the Boy Scout troop he oversees.

They’re the reason, he said, he had to be careful with his words when I asked about his county’s new status as the epicenter of election fraud in the United States.

“I’m just mad about the whole thing,” the former county commissioner told me. “It really is embarrassing for my county, my little tiny county, to be on national news. Where I grew up at and call home.”

In the two weeks since Thanksgiving, Bladen County has been the focus of investigations into irregularities in the race to represent North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. Specifically, how did the Republican, Mark Harris, win 61 percent of the absentee-by-mail votes when Republican voters requested only 19 percent of all absentee ballots? How did he manage to win the county at all, given the fact that it has three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans?

The numbers are close enough to jeopardize Harris’ apparent 905-vote victory over Democrat Dan McCready and might even force a redo of the election. That a small-scale fraud in a rural county of only 35,000 people could have fudged the result of one of the most watched congressional races in the country is a reminder once again of the outside influence of economically-left-behind places like Bladen County, where the poverty rate is 20 percent and the median household income of $32,396 is about half the national median.

Local and national news outlets have done a fairly convincing job assigning blame for this fraud to a man named Leslie McCrae Dowless. A lifelong county resident, Dowless took money from an organization that took money from Harris’ campaign and, in turn, handed that money out to anyone willing to go door-to-door and persuade people to request and then hand over absentee ballots. A few of the foot soldiers have confirmed their parts, and several voters signed affidavits saying someone took their unsealed and incomplete ballots, which is illegal.

But over the course of two days and a couple of dozen interviews, everyone I talked to in Bladen County said it would be shortsighted to assign all blame to Dowless.

“They pick these people who’ve self-destructed their life, then they’re guinea pigs for whatever comes along to make a dollar,” said Sarah Jane Benson, whose family owns a restaurant in Bladenboro. “If it hadn’t been McCrae, it’d been somebody else. They’d have found somebody else to do it.”

Out-of-town commentators have had fun with clips of people standing outside mobile homes in their socks, speaking in heavy Southern accents, but the sad truth is that regardless of how high up the fraud goes, the ground game is a portrait of poverty in America—people who need $100 for reasons that range from Christmas presents to opioid addictions going to the homes of poor and elderly neighbors who trust their ballots in the hands of strangers.

I didn’t come to look for election fraud; that’s more or less an accepted fact now. I came to understand what makes a county like this susceptible.

Some answers are plain. Bladen County is a petri dish of rural America’s problems: It has lost about 5 percent of its population in the past seven years, more than any other county in the region. It’s a farming community where the biggest employer, Smithfield Foods, runs the world’s largest pork processing plant, with 4,400 employees working in a factory that slaughters about 35,000 hogs a day. The company contracts with surrounding farms to raise the animals, and waste and smell are the focus of environmentalists and 26 lawsuits making their way through federal courts. Over the past three autumns, Bladen has been inundated by two of the worst hurricanes in history, Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018, leaving downtowns flooded and farmers without crops. And it’s a place where the rate of unintentional deaths due to drugs is about 29 percent higher than anywhere else in North Carolina.

This is a county that a hundred years ago was the center of a booming agricultural economy but that now has grown accustomed to being forgotten. It’s a place where people don’t trust that big institutions—government agencies at the federal or even state level—have their backs. It’s a place where local races mean everything. Indeed, lingering feuds over a handful of hotly contested elections from years past combined with a few hundred unsuspecting voters may turn out to be the Achilles' heel of an election that saw 282,717 votes cast.

Local Republicans believe that for years Democrats have been rounding up absentee ballots from people to sway elections in the other direction. And although the state board of elections has yet to release findings from a 2016 investigation into activity by a local Democratic PAC, it’s clear that people from both parties lost faith in the election system long before this year.

Take Gillespie, for instance. He’s a black Democrat who voted for Dan McCready. He’s a father of two and an optimist who devotes all his free time to volunteer work. He said of the increasing likelihood of a new election: “I don’t know what it’s going to solve.”

When I told him that it could change a seat in Congress, he said, “That’s crazy. It shouldn’t have gotten to that. Yeah, that scares me.”

***

Before Dowless shot to stardom in the past two weeks, the most famous person from Bladen County was probably Guy Owen. The late novelist grew up on a tobacco farm near Clarkton in the 1920s. His most well-known work was the lighthearted 1965 book The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man, which became a George C. Scott movie. It’s the story of a con artist named Mordecai Jones who travels eastern North Carolina weaseling money out of unsuspecting people.

Early on in the film version, the con man tells his accomplice about a plan to hustle people in a local card game.

“That’s your line, is it?” the accomplice asks.

“Greed’s my line, lad. Greed.”

When I told people around Bladen County that McCrae Dowless has become a Mordecai Jones-type figure, they laughed.

“I know Dowless. I don’t speak to him,” said Charles DeVane, a 76-year-old general contractor and longtime Republican. “I don’t shake his hand. He stuck me.”

Stuck you? I asked.

“I used to be in the jewelry business,” he said. “And he stuck me twice back in the '60s. He bought something and didn’t pay for it. He [did it] one time under McCrae Dowless and then one time under Leslie Dowless." The second time, "I said, ‘Do you know McCrae Dowless?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s my brother.’”

But even a flim-flam man needs an accomplice.

In interviews with local television stations, several people have admitted to going door-to-door to gather absentee ballots and take them to Dowless. Most of them pass off the blame. “I don’t know what happened after I dropped them off,” one woman who was paid by Dowless told a WSOC-TV reporter. “I dropped ’em off and what they do, that’s on them.”

The apparent beneficiary of this scheme, Mark Harris—the candidate who hired the firm that hired Dowless—also claimed ignorance on Friday. In a video statement, he said he was “absolutely unaware of any wrongdoing.”

But just about everyone in Bladen who pays attention to politics knows there has been wrongdoing in the past. And the moment many people point to is the local election of 2010.

That year a group called the Bladen Improvement Association PAC, which had formed in 1989 to promote black candidates for local office, spent $15,500 to “get the vote out.” The payments were small, $62 here and $262 there, and spread out to more than 60 people. They worked, too. While the state swerved hard for conservatives that November, in Bladen County, Democrats swept every office from U.S. Senate to register of deeds.

To hear Republicans like Charles DeVane tell it, it all came down to absentee ballots. “They would go to nursing homes. They would get people unconscious to get an absentee ballot. They’d go to the graveyard,” DeVane said. “The Bladen Improvement Association does not represent the majority of the black people in Bladen County. The majority of the black people in Bladen County would have nothing to do with something if it was illegal. But they take the poor and the ignorant and lead ’em.”

Not surprisingly, the members of the PAC, representing a voting bloc that had enjoyed very little in the way of representation over the years, view their work quite differently. “We’re the minority population; we’re the minorities on the board,” J. Michael Cogdell, a county commissioner and active Bladen Improvement PAC member, tells me. “We just hope and try to keep things on a fair playing field that deal with civil rights. Make sure everybody has representation.”

Nevertheless, after that, Republicans began to organize their own get-out-the-vote efforts. “It’s the only way they could get anybody elected,” DeVane said. “You had to fight fire with fire.”

This appears to have been Dowless’ motivation, too. After serving six months in jail for insurance fraud in 1995, he built a reputation as a passionate political observer who’d gladly jump in and work for either party, as long as it paid. In that 2010 election, he worked for Harold “Butch” Pope, a Democratic candidate for district attorney. But one group irked him more than others. After the 2016 election, he filed a complaint with the state elections board, alleging the Bladen Improvement PAC illegally obtained absentee ballots. But during the hearing for his complaint, in a bizarre scene documented in an episode of “This American Life,” Dowless actually revealed details of his own scheme to gather votes, and the board opened an investigation against him. The board sent its findings to federal prosecutors, state investigators and the district attorney. But no charges were filed.

Pat Melvin doesn’t believe Dowless did anything illegal this time. Melvin’s family started the most famous restaurant in town, Melvin’s Burgers, in 1938. Pat sold it in the early 2000s. I met him in his small office a quarter-mile away, where he runs his real estate business. Melvin does believe the state board of elections needs to “get off their ass” and investigate all the years of election fraud in Bladen County. He has no doubt they’ll find wrongdoing among the Democrats, too. And the contest that he says proves it is the 2010 contest for county sheriff.

The sheriff’s race that year burned conservatives most. Democrat Prentis Benston eked out a close victory in a primary runoff and then defeated unaffiliated candidate Billy Ward by 554 votes out of 12,242 cast in the general election. Benston became the county’s first black sheriff.

Melvin had the results of that race printed and sitting on his desk for me when I arrived.

“Prentis had about 600 absentee ballots,” Melvin told me. The implication was clear: Someone on the Democratic side had rigged the absentee count to elect Benston.

“But we’ve got this hullabaloo about absentee ballots,” he said, the umbrage rising in his voice.

Just then, his phone lit up and the jaunty notes of a ring tone filled the small office.

“That’s McCrae right there,” Melvin said, smiling to me.

“Hey, McCrae,” he said into the phone.

Dowless—a man now known around the world as “Republican operative,” who had been holed up in his house, avoiding reporters from around the country—came through clearly on the phone.

“What’s happenin’, buuud?" he said.

“Well, actually I’m in the middle of an interview with a guy from Politico. Name is Michael.”

A couple of seconds passed before Dowless spoke again, this time softer and more difficult to hear from where I sat. He was telling Melvin about a reporter who was trying to interview him. But he wasn’t talking. 

***

Before 7 a.m. on Friday morning, it was cold as I drove toward a blazing pink sky that decorated the top of sweeping fields, headed east to Tar Heel Baptist Church for a men’s prayer breakfast. The only things that don’t come to life at daybreak in farm country are the inflatable Christmas decorations, lying crumpled in front yards.

Charles Ray Peterson, the Republican county commission chairman, invited me to join him at the breakfast. But around the low-ceilinged fellowship hall were about 35 men of different races and political persuasions. The most difficult choice was in the Hardee’s bags. “Ham biscuits on the right,” a man told me, “sausage on the left.”

The main portion of the breakfast involved a local pastor telling the group that their mission this December is to “go throughout Bladen County and tell people that God loves them.” They passed around an offering plate, with all the money going to a local drug and alcohol treatment center.

Afterward, several people approached me with a mission of their own in mind: They wanted to tell me what’s good about Bladen County.

Dennis Troy, a retired postmaster and Bladen County Community College board chairman, said that on Wednesday the college hired a new president, picking her from a pool of nearly 70 candidates. “We had a list of 68 candidates who wanted to come to Bladen County!” Troy said.

“One bad man don’t make a county,” Colon Roberts, a chicken and beef farmer, said, unprompted, of McCrae Dowless. “It’s all the good people. You saw what these men did this morning. They took money out of their pockets and gave it to people hooked on drugs.”

I turned and asked the group’s organizer how much was in the offering plate.

“One hundred fifty-six dollars,” he said.

***

Just before I returned to Charlotte ahead of a winter storm, I stopped at Melvin’s for lunch.

In the parking lot, I ran into an elderly black man who was getting into his car after a stop at the hardware store. “Got some spray,” he told me. “Roaches tryin’ to get in the house.” William Tatum is an 82-year-old who retired from the logging industry with a bad leg but bright and trusting blue eyes. He lives in White Oak, a few miles from Elizabethtown.

I asked him what he thinks about all the talk about fraud. He told me someone came to his house, too.

“Three head of ’em,” he said.

I asked him what they had said.

“They asked me, did I want to early vote?” he said. “And I didn’t know. Yeah.”

He said all three were black women. He said they came back weeks later. He doesn’t remember their names. But he remembers telling them he wanted to vote for all Democrats.

“They filled it out for you?” I asked him.

“Yeah, they filled it out,” he said.

He said he saw one of the women on the news.

“I really don’t know what happened. … I don’t know if they tried to get the old people that didn’t know nothing or what. You know how that can be,” he said. “I know it ain’t right. If it’s wrong, it can’t be right.”

I said goodbye and headed for my last stop, the county board of elections, just a few blocks away. I wanted to fact-check Pat Melvin’s claim that there were enough absentee ballots in 2010 to turn the election that helped turn the course of elections in Bladen County. Valeria Peacock, the interim director, greeted me. I asked how she was doing.

“This is not the day to ask that,” she said. (Later Friday evening, a WBTV reporter learned that the board’s vice chairman resigned that day, right around the moment of my visit.) “This is not the week to ask that.”

I told her I was looking only for vote counts for the 2010 sheriff’s race. She gave me a puzzled look; that wasn’t the election people are screaming about, after all. Moments later, she handed me the results, all on one page. I ran my pen down the list to see if Prentis Benston had indeed won more than 600 absentee votes that year, as Pat Melvin had said. It’s a big what-if, but it occurred to me that a different result in that sheriff’s race would have changed not just the course of politics in this little county, but maybe even the U.S. Congress.

The number of absentees, though, was 441. Benston’s margin of victory was 554. Even without the absentees, he would’ve won.

Later, I called Melvin to tell him what I’d found. He was gracious.

“I’m glad you corrected me,” he said. “Again, though, I think, how did Prentis get more votes than Billy? They worked harder. That’s what still works today—whoever works hardest gets the votes.”

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story said the North Carolina board of elections took no action after it opened an investigation into alleged absentee ballot fraud in the 2016 election. The board referred the matter to federal, state and local authorities, but no charges were filed.


Michael Graff is executive editor of Charlotte magazine. Reach him at michaelngraff@gmail.com.