Inside a night operation to collect ballots in North Carolina

RALEIGH, NC – Kelly Hendrix was recruited into an illicit effort to influence a congressional race by a customer of the fast food restaurant where she worked.

One day Mrs. Hendrix was serving hamburgers and cookies at a Hardee in Bladen County. Shortly after, she embarked on political shenanigans at the request of her client, L. McCrae Dowless Jr., a former campaign active in a rural area of ​​southeastern North Carolina, where a one in four lives below the poverty line.

"He looked so much like my father that I just contacted him," Hendrix said during a tearful testimony this week in front of the North Carolina State Elections Council, which is investigating Voter turnout rate that Mr. Dowless had last supervised. year for the Republican candidate for Congress in the Ninth District, now the site of the last race in the House pending mid-term elections.

So, in 2016, Mrs. Hendrix went to work for Mr. Dowless, a former car salesman, and collected mail ballot application forms from constituents in Bladen County. Two years later, she was recovering other application forms – and, incorrectly, mail-in ballots – that she was referring to Mr. Dowless in return for money, "for the first time." Gasoline and similar products, "she said.

With a congressional seat now in the balance, this week's sworn testimony in the capital of North Carolina shed light on the workings of the accurate but amateurish operation of Mr. Dowless, a near-foolish business that was paying about $ 3 for each correspondence request collected. and $ 2.50 for each correspondence ballot collected. The project asked whether Republican candidate Mark Harris had really outstripped his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready.

Witnesses described a plan that was both in the books and under the radar, as well as a network consisting not of seasoned ideological activists, but of acquaintances and relatives of Mr. Dowless who needed cash and money. who asked few questions.

Guided by the slight bearded man once celebrated as a local "election guru", they swept the unsealed or incomplete ballots and returned them in batches to Mr. Dowless, who was working on behalf of the Harris campaign. They sometimes filled the ballot papers or signed as electors' witnesses they had never seen, with a color of ink specially chosen so that it did not raise the slightest suspicion in the local election offices.

After the November poll, however, there were concerns, particularly in Bladen County, where Harris won 61% of the vote, while registered Republicans accounted for only 19% of the vote. Mr. Harris had a 905 vote advance over Mr. McCready when state officials refused to certify his victory because of concerns about fraud.

Law enforcement officials are currently reviewing Mr. Dowless's operation and could possibly lay charges against him and his associates. But the five-member Electoral Committee also wonders if Mr. Dowless's behavior amounted to "irregularities or irregularities" that were so prejudicial that they tainted the entire election.

The decision of the board of directors, which could happen this week, could trigger new elections and will certainly affect the ninth district and Congress.

[Lily:[Read:[Lis:[Read:In North Carolina, investigators find the "system" of voting in the home race]

Mr. Dowless, 63, has a criminal record with convictions for perjury and fraud and worked for politicians on both sides. He refused requests for repeat interviews and, through the intermediary of his lawyer, refused Monday to testify before the state council. . The panel chairman warned that the jury could still "draw negative conclusions about his actions".

On Wednesday, one of Harris' sons, John Harris, said that he had warned his father in April 2017 of his fears about Mr. Dowless, whose work had been reviewed by the US government. State a few months ago. John Harris said that he became suspicious after analyzing the returns of a 2016 campaign that his father had lost, among them a candidate who had hired Mr. Dowless.

"The important thing is that I am certain that what they are doing is illegal, it is that they have collected the completed postal ballot papers and have them." all sent at one time, "wrote John Harris in an e-mail to his parents on April 7, 2017, a day after Mark Harris, a long-time pastor who was considering a race in 2018, met Mr. Dowless and was told that his "postal voting program" was perfectly legal.

"They believed what McCrae had assured them," John Harris told his parents on Wednesday. "I did not do it."

The elder, Mr. Harris, who sometimes suffered tears when his son testified and is expected to introduce himself on Thursday, nevertheless hired Mr. Dowless. During the much-disputed primary and general elections that followed, tens of thousands of dollars in fees and refunds were transferred from Mr. Harris's campaign to a consultant from Mr. Dowless.

"It looked like someone who was very knowledgeable about the law, someone who knew his riding very well, kept good records, was well organized, knew who was going to ask for ballot papers." correspondence in his county, "said Andy Yates, the Harris chief strategist of the campaign, said Tuesday under oath. "He seemed to have run all the traps."

He also seemed to be an agent who knew his workers were interested in money, not in public policy. He often went to Mr. Yates' office near Charlotte, several hours away from Bladen County, to look for checks he could cash out to pay his associates.

"It felt like they had to be paid as soon as they would have finished, otherwise they would not come back," said Yates.

At least one worker, Lisa Britt, had been drawn to family ties. As Dowless's daughter-in-law, she said she had deep faith in the man who married her mother in the late 1980s.

"I did not think my father would send me to do anything illegal," she said during hours of testimony on Monday.

But by then, Ms. Britt had already testified about a catalog of alleged crimes.

"If some of this information had not been entered, we would indicate which ones were not," she said, adding that she and others had worked on ballot papers at Mr. Dowless's home or office to keep election officials noticed ballots containing mainly votes for races in which he was working.

"I saw someone else mark a blank bulletin that was not theirs," she said a few minutes later, before acknowledging that she had signed her name as a witness whereas she had actually seen nothing.

Mr. Dowless, she said, has put in place a careful system to avoid detection. The ballots were mailed from the post offices near the electors' homes and sent only in small batches, perhaps nine or ten per lot.

In all, she said, she probably collected 35 to 40 ballots and changed fewer than a dozen. For her, the work was not about Mr. Harris, but about the money waiting.

"I never tried to personally indicate how to vote, because personally, it did not benefit us for the workers because we were paid the sum," she said.

Efforts soon proved futile and the fate of the seat of the House, held by Republicans since 1963, was questioned.

In the middle of the examination, Mr. Dowless summoned some of his workers for a brief meeting, said Ms. Britt. He had a simple message that reflected their common and growing legal danger.

"As long as we stay together," Ms. Britt recalls, "Mr. Dowless recalls," everything will be fine because they do not carry anything on us. "

State officials said Dowless had already attempted this month to pressure Ms. Britt to keep the secret of what had happened.

"I can tell you that I have not done anything wrong since the election, and McCrae Dowless never told me to do anything, and to my knowledge, he has never nothing bad, "Dowless told Ms. Britt. according to a scenario proposed by the election officials on large screens during his testimony.

But when a state board lawyer asked if she or Mr. Dowless had broken the law, Ms. Britt replied, "Did I know I was wrong? No, ma'am, I did not do it, but yes, I feel that I have done wrong.

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