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In rural North Carolina, a congressional race remains undecided as voting investigation widens

Jenny Jarvie, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

Another woman, Cheryl Kinlaw, 46, said she worked for the same consultant for seven or eight days and was paid $100 plus gas money. After driving around the county picking up absentee ballots, she said, she would hand them to the consultant, who would add them to stacks of ballots on his desk.

"I feel sick to my stomach," Kinlaw said Tuesday as she took a drag of an L&M cigarette outside her mobile home in Bladenboro. "I feel duped. We had no idea it was illegal. He'd been doing that for years and years. We didn't think nothing of it!"

Both identified the consultant as Leslie McCrae Dowless, an independent political contractor with a criminal record who has worked on a long list of local and state campaigns over the last decade. Dowless was hired by the Harris campaign through Red Dome Group, a right-leaning political consulting firm.

According to witnesses and sworn affidavits filed with election officials, Dowless led a team that went door-to-door collecting absentee ballots from residents -- a practice known as "harvesting." It's a violation of state law in North Carolina, where only a relative or legal guardian can assist a voter with an absentee ballott. Dowless personally turned in 592 of the 1,341 absentee ballots requested in Bladen County.

Harris won more than 60 percent of the submitted absentee ballots in the county, even though Republicans constituted only 19 percent of the voters who filed absentee ballots. An unusually large proportion of requested absentee ballots -- 40 percent -- were never returned. In neighboring Robeson County, 62 percent were never handed in.

Dowless, 62, who serves as board vice chairman for the Bladen County Soil and Water Conversation District, has been involved in local politics for the last decade. According to campaign finance reports listed by the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, a string of Democratic and Republican candidates -- including Harold "Butch" Pope, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for district attorney of Bladen County, and William D. Brisson, a Republican state House member -- have paid Dowless for "get out the vote" work.

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Dowless has a criminal record as well, with a string of misdemeanor convictions for writing bad checks and failing to pay taxes, as well as a conviction for felony perjury and insurance fraud.

In 1991, the Fayetteville Observer reported that Dowless and his wife, Sandra, were accused of taking out a life insurance policy on a 24-year-old employee who died in a car accident, forging his signature after his death, back-dating it, and collecting more than $163,000 from the death. Dowless served more than six months of a two-year prison sentence.

In 2016, Dowless protested a high volume of write-ins in a race he ultimately won for soil and water district supervisor. But in a subsequent hearing with state election officials, they turned the focus on him.

While Dowless admitted he paid people about $20 a day to obtain absentee ballot request forms and turn them in, he said he did not look at ballots or tamper with votes. The State Bureau of Investigation and the Wake County district attorney are conducting a criminal investigation into voting irregularities in that election.

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