In a low-slung, aging commercial strip across the street from an online-gaming parlor here, a local operative named Leslie McCrae Dowless ran his command center for Republican Mark Harris in the 9th Congressional District primary this spring. Dowless sat at a desk at the back of one of the strip’s vacant storefronts, where he oversaw a crew of workers who collected absentee ballots from voters and updated the Harris campaign on the numbers, according to Jeff Smith, who is the building’s owner and a former Dowless friend. Smith provided his account about the primary campaign to state investigators, who are examining whether Dowless’s activities then and in the general election violated North Carolina’s election laws, which allow only individual voters or designated close relatives to mail a ballot. Dowless is now at the center of a burgeoning fraud investigation that has delayed the certification of Harris’s narrow victory and could prompt officials to call for a new election between him and Democrat Dan McCready, who are separated by 905 votes, according to unofficial returns.
Dowless, who has denied any wrongdoing to the Charlotte Observer, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The possibility that November’s vote will be tossed out has prompted an eruption of partisan accusations. The case is politically fraught for Republicans, who in North Carolina and across the country have pushed for voter-identification laws and other restrictions while warning without evidence about the threat of rampant voter fraud, particularly by immigrants in the country illegally.
Now, amid Democratic calls for investigations of a different kind of election fraud — one that allegedly benefited the GOP — Republicans have stayed largely silent about the allegations, instead accusing the state elections board of trying to steal the race.
On Monday, the board issued a subpoena to the Harris campaign, according to campaign attorney John Branch. The board is expected to issue one soon to Red Dome Group, a GOP consulting firm based in the suburbs of Charlotte that hired Dowless, according to two people familiar with the probe.