One early sign that something about McCrae Dowless wasn’t on the up-and-up came in November 2016. With the race between North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory and Democrat Roy Cooper down to a razor-thin margin, Republicans filed claims of voter fraud with county boards of election around the state. The GOP was aiming to delegitimize Cooper’s lead and to legitimize years of effort to overhaul voting laws to make them more restrictive, claiming serious fraud. In Bladen County, in the southeastern part of the state, Dowless, who had won a race for soil and water commissioner, alleged that “literally hundreds of fraudulent ballots” were cast in his race. When he was called before the North Carolina State Board of Elections to discuss his complaint, he was unable to answer specific questions about his allegations. More astonishingly, Dowless at one point deflected a question by invoking his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination—even though the board was hearing a complaint he himself had filed.
It was a portent. Today, Dowless stands accused of orchestrating a sweeping voter-fraud operation in Bladen County—allegedly to benefit a Republican candidate for U.S. House. The state board has refused to certify the results of the race pending an investigation, leaving the final makeup of the 116th Congress in doubt. Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, Republican lawmakers 100 miles north in Raleigh are close to passing a new voter-ID law. After years of searching for proof that voting fraud is rampant in the Old North State, there’s finally a persuasive case—and it’s a kind of fraud the new law is unlikely to stop.
The first public indication that all was not right in Bladen County came two weeks ago, when the North Carolina State Board of Elections decided not to certify the results of the closely watched Ninth Congressional District race, in which Republican Mark Harris defeated Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes. (Harris beat the incumbent, Robert Pittenger, a fellow Republican, in the primary.)