Adam Delane Thompson wanted to vote but was not sure what to do with the absentee ballots he received in the mail this year for him, his fiancée and his daughter. So for guidance he called an old friend in Bladenboro, L. McCrae Dowless Jr., a low-level local official with a criminal record who nonetheless had once been feted as “guru of elections” in Bladen County. Mr. Dowless soon had the sealed ballots in his hands and was off to the post office to mail them, Mr. Thompson said. Mr. Thompson, who works in the maintenance department at a DuPont plant, said in an interview he was grateful. But the act was apparently illegal in North Carolina, where, except in limited circumstances, it is a felony to collect another person’s absentee ballot. In this rural region near the state’s southern border, where candidates are often intimately known as neighbors, friends or enemies, Mr. Dowless ran a do-it-all vote facilitating business that was part of the community fabric.
While cash-driven voter turnout efforts are a cottage industry in campaign seasons, Mr. Dowless’s operation appeared to run like a family business that crossed lines laid out in election law.
Dozens of interviews and an examination of thousands of pages of documents portray Mr. Dowless, a former car salesman, as a local political opportunist who was quick to seek ballots, collect them or offer rides to the polls. He employed a network of part-time helpers, some of them his own relatives, who, lured by promises of swift cash payments, would fan out across southeastern North Carolina in get-out-the-vote efforts for whichever candidate happened to be footing that year’s bill.