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

Now within the spring of 2017, a extra motivated Mark Harris thought-about a second problem. And this time he meant to rent the identical Bladen County operative who had seemed to be the key weapon in his defeat.

That morning after the assembly at Ray Britt’s furnishings retailer, Mark Harris walked John by way of what Dowless had informed him about his two-step course of. How Dowless despatched staff to gather the absentee poll request kinds, which is authorized, however not the absentee ballots themselves, which is unlawful. How Dowless despatched a crew of two folks to witness absentee ballots however not gather them, which is authorized as long as each individuals who signal as witnesses truly watched the voter forged their poll. How Dowless swore to him he wouldn’t take a 90-year-old lady’s poll to the mailbox even when she requested. Primarily based on Dowless’s presentation the day earlier than, the elder Harris mentioned, the operation appeared to be authorized.

John didn’t consider it.

He tried to persuade his father to remain away. Their dialog stretched on by way of John’s 20-minute drive into downtown Raleigh, as he sat in his automotive within the parking storage and as he walked throughout the road and sat on a bench exterior of his workplace. John informed his dad that Dowless was a convicted felon. The younger man who was president of his highschool honors council mentioned he anxious Dowless would do one thing unlawful. And even when he didn’t, he nonetheless would possibly do one thing that may stain the victory.

“You higher consider that Robert Pittenger, if it’s an in depth race, he’s going to ship every thing after you to find out, you already know, whether or not or not something had gone on,” John informed his dad.

John, by now pacing exterior his workplace, mentioned he needed to go to work. However the dialog continued by way of electronic mail. The primary notice from John merely quoted the North Carolina statute that made it a felony to gather somebody’s absentee poll.

Mark responded a half hour later. “So that you discovered no drawback in dealing with ‘request kinds?’ I’m sure they’ve them mailed in then!”

John replied instantly in an electronic mail that started with a chilly admonition: “This isn’t authorized recommendation.” It was as if he was speaking to a would-be shopper whose case he knew was dangerous, a case he didn’t wish to take. It was additionally as if he knew that at some point his emails could be made public.

“The important thing factor that I’m pretty sure they do that’s unlawful is that they gather the finished absentee ballots and mail them directly,” John wrote. “The best way they pop up in batches on the board of elections makes me consider that. But when they merely depart the poll with the voter and say you’ll want to mail this in, then that’s not unlawful.”

Mark’s response to his scholar son’s well-reasoned, well-researched recommendation was hypothetical. “Mother introduced up level,” Mark wrote, talking of his spouse, Beth. “Perhaps they simply go together with the particular person to their private mailbox and put it in, and lift the flag for the mailman to select up. For the reason that poll is already sealed and signed over the seal, they don’t decide them up, to my understanding, however reasonably encourage them to mail it that day by placing it of their mailbox and elevating the flag.”

John, in disbelief, flung again one final reply. “Good take a look at is if you happen to’re snug with the total course of he makes use of being broadcast on the information.”

Mark Harris didn’t reply. His reply got here two weeks later when he began writing checks to Dowless to safe his companies for the 2018 election.

On Might 8, 2018, a yr and alter after the primary assembly between Harris and Dowless, the first election day broke sunny with temperatures within the higher 70s. A nice day for folks to point out as much as the polls. That’s, in the event that they hadn’t already voted.

By then, Dowless had launched Harris to everybody he may discover in Bladen County. He’d taken the candidate to the Beast Fest, Bladen’s fall pageant named in honor of a legendary predator from the Nineteen Fifties that supposedly was killing folks’s pets, and to the peanut pageant. Mark had eaten muscadine slushies and collard sandwiches, hyper-local delicacies, in his efforts to attach with the agricultural voters.

Harris and his marketing campaign had been on their strategy to paying Dowless about $130,000 to work three counties — Bladen, Robeson and Cumberland — over the course of the 2018 election. Dowless used the money on varied marketing campaign bills, together with funds to staff on the bottom. Dowless may have labored for Pittenger however he informed us he appreciated Harris extra, and he paid higher. “I knew Pittenger wouldn’t have paid that a lot,” Dowless informed us. “He’d have mentioned $3,000 or $4,000. You possibly can’t do three rattling counties for $3,000 or $4,000. You possibly can’t do it. And I mentioned, ‘Hey, I’m not gonna do it.’”

His playbook was because it ever was. Dowless despatched a small military of folks to knock on doorways, persuade folks to fill out an absentee poll request kind, after which observe up after the ballots arrived to ensure they really voted. The employees drove down grime roads and knocked on doorways, not out of a love of politics or a way of civic engagement. They did it for the money. Dowless paid roughly $200 per stack of request kinds.

By 2018, the opioid disaster was half of the material of Bladen County. The speed of unintentional deaths as a result of medication was about 29 p.c greater than wherever else in North Carolina. Dowless and plenty of of his non-user pals have a reputation for these addicts. Hearkening again to the times when individuals who labored in cotton mills had been known as “lintheads,” he calls them “pillheads.” Folks like that had been in search of fast work for money, and Dowless had stacks of it.

He was keen to rent them, however he gave them no leeway: fee upon receipt of the poll request kinds. No exceptions. “These folks, if you happen to don’t pay them to do one thing,” Dowless informed us, “if you happen to pay them an hourly price, they’ll go sit below a tree.”

So these “pillheads,” as Dowless known as them, collected the request kinds and introduced them again to him. They might both return them to his home, the place he’d look them over sitting in his swivel chair at his kitchen desk, or to his workplace a couple of miles away, the place he’d maintain court docket from a unique swivel chair behind an previous desk with a full ashtray.

He’d look over the kinds, then put the initials of the one who collected it within the prime proper nook. That method, if the board of elections had any questions in regards to the poll request kind, he knew which employee to name. He made a duplicate of every kind earlier than turning it in. This manner, he’d have the voters’ info when the precise ballots went out, and he may ship staff again to their homes to ensure they voted.

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