BLADEN COUNTY, N.C. -- When a woman with bleach-blond hair and tattooed arms knocked on Datesha Montgomery's front door, telling her she was collecting mail-in absentee ballots, the stay-at-home mom did not ask too many questions.
Montgomery had not yet filled out her ballot, so she grabbed a pen and started going through the candidates. The 27-year-old had only made selections in two races when the woman became fidgety, saying she was running late for a Bible study class.
"I asked her, 'Do I need to fill the rest of it out?' " Montgomery said. "She told me, no -- the rest wasn't important. She would send it off for me."
It wasn't until just before Election Day that she realized her ballot was never turned in.
A month after the Nov. 6 general election, North Carolina's 9th Congressional District race is still in limbo as state election officials widen an investigation into allegations of absentee ballot irregularities in several rural counties. Last week, the state's board of elections declined to certify the election results that showed conservative Republican and former Baptist preacher Mark Harris clinging to a 905-vote lead. Instead, the board announced it would hold a public hearing to explore claims of fraud and irregularities in what could well become the most significant case of alleged electoral fraud in the U.S. in decades.
Much of the investigation into the vote has focused on Bladen County, a mostly rural area of about 33,000 residents that had the state's highest rate of absentee ballot requests, more than double the rate in most counties.
Ginger Eason, a 45-year-old Bladenboro resident, said she was given a printed list of names by a Republican political consultant and paid about $75 to collect around 50 completed absentee ballots a week.
Eason said she worked for the consultant on and off for about two months, knocking on doors across the county and then dropping ballots off to the consultant at an office in a squat brick building next to a hardware store at the intersection of two highways.
"I picked them up and carried them to him," Eason said. "What he done after that, I don't know."
Eason estimates she collected about 100 ballots, but is listed as a witness on just 28.
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.
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.
Reached outside his modest one-story brick ranch home in Bladenboro this week, Dowless declined to comment. Red Dome Group did not respond to repeated calls and emails.
Harris, meanwhile, has been adamant that he supports any investigation into potential voter fraud but doesn't believe the outcome of the election will change.
Sponsored Video Stories from LifeZette
"Make no mistake, I support any efforts to investigate allegations of irregularities and/or voter fraud, as long as it is fair and focuses on all political parties," he said in a tweet. "There is absolutely no public evidence that there are enough ballots in question to affect the outcome of this race."
The election controversy puts Republicans in this conservative Southern state in an awkward position. After years of railing against the specter of voter fraud, pushing for stringent voter laws that critics said disproportionately burden African-American and Latino voters, they now face the prospect that one of their own may be embroiled in a major case dealing with electoral irregularities.
Since the general election, Republicans have repeatedly urged the state elections board to certify Harris' win, arguing that any irregularities in absentee voting do not appear to be widespread enough to alter the outcome of the race.
"We're concerned some bad actors may have done some bad things," said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party. "However, you can't wipe away the votes of over 286,000 people who cast votes legally."
For Woodhouse, the race poses two distinct questions: Did illegal activity occur? Did that activity change the outcome of the race or have a substantial likelihood of changing the race? While illegal actions should be prosecuted, he argued, they should not automatically delay certifying the election.
A special election for the 9th District race, Woodhouse said, would likely only attract about 10 percent-15 percent of the residents who voted in the general election.
"Over 200,000 people would end up having their legally cast votes eliminated," he said. "They would be disenfranchised."
Yet the prospect of Harris entering the U.S. House anytime soon looks slim. Even if North Carolina certifies the election, the House is the final judge on the qualifications of its members.
On Tuesday, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., expected to be the new House Majority Leader, raised the prospect that Democrats could refuse to seat Harris. And if Democrats were to challenge Harris' election, the House Administration Committee would be charged with conducting an investigation that might take months. Ultimately, the House could order a new election.
Across the 9th Congressional District, more than 3,400 requested absentee ballots were not returned. While some residents who requested ballots may have just decided not to submit them, or voted in person instead, others -- such as Montgomery and Jeneva Legions -- handed over their ballots to people who knocked on their door.
In the Village Oak public housing complex in Bladenboro, Jeneva Legions, a 30-year-old cashier at a bargain store, said she gave her ballot to a group of women who walked door-to-door around her neighborhood in October.
"Are you Jeneva?" a woman asked her. "I've come to pick up the ballots."
"I just gave it to her," Legions said. "I thought she worked for the county."
An unaffiliated voter who typically votes a straight Democratic ticket, Legions eventually found out her ballot was never received.
"Turns out I didn't vote for nobody," she said.
Montgomery, the stay-at-home mom, was luckier -- Democratic volunteers informed her before Election Day that her mail-in ballot had not been entered into the system, so she was able to cancel it and cast her vote in person. She still has no idea what happened to her mail-in ballot.
"My trust is all messed up," she said. "What did she do with my vote? Did she just throw it out?"
(c)2018 Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.