‘This Smacks of Something Gone Awry’: A True Tale of Absentee Vote Fraud

Now in the spring of 2017, a more determined Mark Harris thought about a 2nd difficulty. And this time he implied to work with the exact same Bladen County operative who had actually seemed the ace in the hole in his defeat.

That early morning after the conference at Ray Britt’s furnishings shop, Mark Harris strolled John through what Dowless had actually informed him about his two-step procedure. How Dowless sent out employees to gather the absentee tally demand types, which is legal, however not the absentee tallies themselves, which is prohibited. How Dowless sent out a group of 2 individuals to witness absentee tallies however not gather them, which is legal so long as both individuals who sign as witnesses in fact saw the citizen cast their tally. How Dowless testified him he wouldn’t take a 90-year-old female’s tally to the mail box even if she asked. Based upon Dowless’s discussion the day previously, the older Harris stated, the operation appeared to be legal.

John didn’t think it.

He attempted to encourage his dad to keep away. Their discussion extended on through John’s 20-minute drive into downtown Raleigh, as he beinged in his vehicle in the parking lot and as he strolled throughout the street and rested on a bench beyond his workplace. John informed his daddy that Dowless was a founded guilty felon. The boy who was president of his high school honors council stated he fretted Dowless would do something prohibited. And even if he didn’t, he still may do something that would stain the triumph.

“You better believe that Robert Pittenger, if it’s a close race, he’s going to send everything after you to determine, you know, whether or not anything had gone on,” John informed his daddy.

John, by now pacing outside his workplace, stated he needed to go to work. However the discussion continued through e-mail. The first note from John simply quoted the North Carolina statute that made it a felony to collect someone’s absentee ballot.

Mark responded a half hour later. “So you found no problem in handling ‘request forms?’ I am certain they have them mailed in then!”

John replied right away in an e-mail that began with a cold admonition: “This is not legal advice.” It was as though he was talking to a would-be client whose case he knew was bad, a case he didn’t want to take. It was also as if he knew that one day his emails would be made public.

“The key thing that I am fairly certain they do that is illegal is that they collect the completed absentee ballots and mail them at once,” John wrote. “The way they pop up in batches at the board of elections makes me believe that. But if they simply leave the ballot with the voter and say be sure to mail this in, then that’s not illegal.”

Mark’s response to his scholar son’s well-reasoned, well-researched advice was hypothetical. “Mom brought up a good point,” Mark wrote, speaking of his wife, Beth. “Maybe they just go with the person to their personal mailbox and put it in, and raise the flag for the mailman to pick up. Since the ballot is already sealed and signed over the seal, they don’t pick them up, to my understanding, but rather encourage them to mail it that day by putting it in their mailbox and raising the flag.”

John, in disbelief, flung back one last reply. “Good test is if you’re comfortable with the full process he uses being broadcast on the news.”

Mark Harris didn’t respond. His answer came two weeks later when he started writing checks to Dowless to secure his services for the 2018 election.

On May 8, 2018, a year and change after the very first meeting between Harris and Dowless, the primary election day broke sunny with temperatures in the upper 70s. A great day for people to show up to the polls. That is, if they hadn’t already voted.

By then, Dowless had introduced Harris to everyone he could find in Bladen County. He’d taken the candidate to the Beast Fest, Bladen’s fall festival named in honor of a mythical predator from the 1950s that supposedly was killing people’s pets, and to the peanut festival. Mark had eaten muscadine slushies and collard sandwiches, hyper-local delicacies, in his efforts to connect with the rural voters.

Harris and his campaign were on their way to paying Dowless about $130,000 to work three counties — Bladen, Robeson and Cumberland — over the course of the 2018 election. Dowless used the cash on various campaign expenses, including payments to workers on the ground. Dowless could have worked for Pittenger but he told us he liked Harris more, and he paid better. “I knew Pittenger wouldn’t have paid that much,” Dowless told us. “He’d have said $3,000 or $4,000. You can’t do three damn counties for $3,000 or $4,000. You can’t do it. And I said, ‘Hey, I’m not gonna do it.’”

His playbook was as it ever was. Dowless sent a small army of people to knock on doors, convince people to fill out an absentee tally request form, and then follow up after the ballots arrived to make sure they actually voted. The workers drove down dirt roads and knocked on doors, not out of a love of politics or a sense of civic engagement. They did it for the cash. Dowless paid roughly $200 per stack of request forms.

By 2018, the opioid crisis was part of the fabric of Bladen County. The rate of unintentional deaths due to drugs was about 29 percent higher than anywhere else in North Carolina. Dowless and many of his non-user friends have a name for these addicts. Hearkening back to the days when people who worked in cotton mills were called “lintheads,” he calls them “pillheads.” People like that were looking for quick work for cash, and Dowless had stacks of it.

He was willing to hire them, but he gave them no leeway: payment upon receipt of the ballot request forms. No exceptions. “These people, if you don’t pay them to do something,” Dowless told us, “if you pay them an hourly rate, they’ll go sit under a tree.”

So these “pillheads,” as Dowless called them, collected the request forms and brought them back to him. They would either return them to his house, where he’d look them over sitting in his swivel chair at his kitchen table, or to his office a few miles away, where he’d hold court from a different swivel chair behind an old desk with a full ashtray.

He’d look over the forms, then put the initials of the person who collected it in the top right corner. That way, if the board of elections had any questions about the ballot request form, he understood which worker to call. He made a copy of each form before turning it in. This way, he’d have the voters’ information when the actual ballots went out, and he might send employees back to their houses to make certain they voted.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.