by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
McCrae Dowless, the man at the heart of an alleged ballot trafficking (also known as ballot harvesting) scheme that resulted in an overturned congressional election, died on Sunday, April 24.
His untimely death (he was just 66 years old) came just months before his scheduled trial on voting fraud charges. He was charged with absentee ballot fraud for allegedly directing a crew of people who “helped” voters by illegally taking possession of their ballots and delivering them to election boards. There is also evidence that Dowless or those under his direction falsely witnessed ballots and marked voters’ ballots themselves.
Aside from the pain his friends and family must feel, his death is a shame on several levels.
It is clear from Dowless’ actions that he did not believe he did anything wrong with his absentee ballot operation. He refused a plea deal that would have had him serve six months in state prison. It was not the threat of prison time that led him to plead not guilty to election fraud crimes; he had already pled guilty to theft and Social Security fraud charges that also netted him a six-month sentence.
Dowless was not alone in believing that he was innocent of ballot trafficking charges. I have spoken with people in Bladen County who believed that Dowless was being scapegoated for doing things others were doing with impunity. They were not alone in their emphatic defense of Dowless, as detailed in “The Vote Collectors” by Michael Graff and Nick Ochsner. They wrote of an incident when Dallas Woodhouse, then-executive director of the North Carolina Republican Partyand currently a writer for Carolina Journal, met a group of Bladen County political leaders, including Pat Melvin, to discuss what was going to happen in the 9th District:
[Woodhouse] got right to it, his update on what the future looked like for the congressional race and for the people here.
“The one thing we know,” he said, “is McCrae Dowless is going to jail.”
Pat, who’d grown up playing poll [sic] with McCrae in the back of his father’s arcade, felt the blood rushing to his bald head.
“No, he’s not!”
Melvin’s words proved to be prophetic, but in a way that satisfies nobody.
With the death of Dowless, prosecutors have lost the opportunity for systematically investigating and prosecuting allegations of election fraud committed by political operatives. While Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman says she will pursue cases with six members of Dowless’ crew on related charges, she will do so “with the understanding that the State’s position was always that Mr. Dowless was the principal actor.”
Prosecutors will probably seek to wrap the related cases up quickly without their primary target. We should expect quick and quiet plea bargains.
Dowless’ crew were not the only people in Bladen County with credible allegations of ballot trafficking against them. As detailed in “The Vote Collectors,” Dowless learned his trade from the Bladen County Improvement Association (the Association) while working for Democrats in Bladen County. He later switched parties to support Republicans.
To cite an example of the Association’s methods, during a State Board of Elections hearing on the 2018 9th Congressional District election, Precious Nicole Hall testified that she had received an absentee ballot in the mail even though she had not requested one. She then testified that two people, Lola Wooten and Sandra “Squeaky” Guions, who were paid by the Association, came to her home soon after. They took possession of her ballot after she had completed it (Day 1 of the hearing, pp. 218–222). That is a felony under North Carolina law, but nobody employed by the Association has ever been prosecuted, much less convicted, despite Hall’s testimony and other available evidence.
If there was systematic absentee ballot fraud in Bladen County, it was a bipartisan affair.
Absentee ballot fraud, when it happens, is underreported and underprosecuted in North Carolina. Even when election officials discover and report election fraud cases to prosecutors, they very rarely result in prosecutions, as Gary Bartlett found while serving as the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections:
Bartlett said he referred alleged absentee fraud cases for investigation in Yancey, Bladen, Robeson, Mitchell, Swain and Columbus counties without action being taken. He said state and federal law enforcement officers have been aggressive in prosecuting violations of elections laws by officials, such as former state Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, House Speaker Jim Black and state Rep. Thomas Wright, “but if it’s on a lower level, it may get handled and it may not.”
Add to that sorry record the 2021 case of Wanda Blue and Julia Shaw, who were charged with a combined 21 counts of trafficking the absentee ballots of assisted living facility patients in Hoke County. Blue and Shaw were allowed to enter a plea arrangement in which they were allowed to serve 24 hours of community service followed by unsupervised probation.
The Dowless case could have been a chance for prosecutors to try to break that poor track record. His death took away that chance.
For Dowless, for prosecutors, and for people who will never receive justice, it is all just a shame.