The offices of the Bladen County Board of Elections are on a side street a few blocks from the courthouse in downtown Elizabethtown, across the street from the loading docks of a furniture store and a supermarket. It’s a quiet spot under a bright spotlight.

The five members of the Bladen County Board of Elections had 156 mail-in absentee ballots to examine Tuesday night, the previous seven days’ intake three weeks out from election day. They sat at folding tables, socially distanced, and passed each ballot envelope from gloved hand to gloved hand, checking the postmark, the signatures and the witness statement.

A dozen people watched this basic and monotonous mechanic of democracy, one conducted in every county on Tuesday. In Wake County, it took 11 hours. In Bladen, it took 66 minutes. That wasn’t the only difference: In Wake, the envelopes were opened and the ballots fed into tabulating machines. In Bladen, they were left unopened and placed back in the ballot vault to await Election Day.

The scrutiny and the process are both legacies of what happened in Bladen County in 2018, when the results of the 9th Congressional District race were thrown out over what the State Board of Elections called an election “corrupted by fraud, improprieties, and irregularities so pervasive that its results are tainted.”

One impropriety: the count from early voting, which is not supposed to be read from tabulation machines until Election Day, found its way to the longtime political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless, who the state elections board determined was at the center of an absentee ballot harvesting scheme working on behalf of Republican candidate Mark Harris when it ordered a new election.

Now Dowless, who has continued to serve as a county Soil and Water Conservation commissioner and is on the ballot for re-election next month, is one of 11 people awaiting trial on felony charges for alleged ballot harvesting in the 2016 general election, 2018 primary election and 2018 general election. Dowless is also facing federal charges on allegations of Social Security fraud.

A state law passed in November 2019 made sweeping changes to North Carolina’s absentee ballot regulations in an attempt to close many of the loopholes Dowless and others are alleged to have exploited. There are other changes in Bladen County since 2018 as well: a new five-person election board, new elections staff and physical changes to the board offices. But the specter of what happened two years ago is never far away.

“Our board has said they will not open up any any ballots and enter them into the tabulator until Election Day,” said Bladen elections director Chris Williams, who was hired a year ago. “They did not want any information getting out.”

Dowless case leads to reforms

Amid a political storm of questionable allegations of voter and ballot fraud nationally, the Bladen County case remains one of few actual documented instances of systematic fraud in recent history.

The state board called it “a well-funded and highly organized criminal operation” to collect absentee ballots from voters and mail them to election officials. Witnesses testified some ballots were collected unmarked, and experts testified that an unusual amount of requested ballots were never submitted.

The ballot harvesting threw into question the 9th Congressional District election that Harris won by a scant 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready. Harris was never certified as the winner as the fraud came to light. Another Republican, Dan Bishop, eventually claimed the seat almost a year later in a special election.

A consultant to Harris’ campaign hired Dowless after the operative helped secure 221 of 225 absentee votes cast for Harris’ primary opponent in 2016. Harris then won the 2018 primary thanks in part to a 437-17 absentee edge.

Two years later, in a new election cycle, attention once again turns to Bladen County, this time out of curiosity about whether it could happen again.

“There are so many eyes on our absentee voting processes right now, if there are anomalies or questionable activities, they will be reported to us,” State Board of Elections spokesman Patrick Gannon said.

While accusations of absentee ballot harvesting in six different North Carolina counties have been forwarded to prosecutors over the past two decades, the Dowless case is the first to be prosecuted.

In the aftermath, state senators Ralph Hise, a Republican from Spruce Pine, and Floyd McKissick Jr., a Democrat from Durham, cosponsored a reform bill that closed many of the loopholes that were exploited in the 9th District.

The bill, signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on Nov. 6, 2019, was better known to the public for restoring early voting on the last Saturday before the election and extending early voting hours. But it also contained a laundry list of provisions designed to address the kind of ballot fraud that had occurred a year earlier.

“After the 9th District, there might have been a little bit of overreaction to things,” said McKissick, who left the senate to join the N.C. Utilities Commission in January. “In that day, that era, that context, we wanted to create a simplified way for people to request ballots.”

Foremost among the changes: The list of voters requesting absentee ballots, which unscrupulous operatives could use to track who might have ballots ready for illegal collection, is no longer a public record until after the election. It previously was updated and released daily like other election information.

The state board also found Dowless’ group requested absentee ballots for unwitting voters, sometimes forging signatures collected from past requests. Dowless and people indicted with him dropped off absentee requests for 768 voters in the 2018 general election, WUNC reported. Others apparently unaffiliated with the scheme also dropped off hundreds.

Third parties can no longer submit those requests in person. They must be dropped off by the voter, a close relative or legal guardian, sent via mail or submitted online. The bill also ended the standardization of absentee ballot request forms that harvesting operations could potentially fill out years in advance and have ready in bulk.

The new law also stiffened penalties for absentee ballot fraud and created new ones for everything from destroying absentee ballots to paying for the collection of absentee ballot requests. Still to be resolved in court is whether absentee ballots improperly left in secure boxes used for registration forms and ballot requests will be counted.

“You’re never going to be able to make absentee ballot fraud impossible, and I don’t even know if that’s really the goal,” said Andy Jackson, an elections policy analyst at the conservative Civitas Institute. “You just want to make it as difficult as possible to implement on any decent-size scale. As far as that goes, the bill was pretty good.”

Physical security also addressed

All of the changes were designed to stop what happened in 2016 and 2018 in the 9th District from happening again elsewhere in the state. The National Vote at Home Institute, which advocates for the expansion of mail-in absentee voting, pointed to North Carolina’s requirement to have two witnesses and the lack of a ballot tracking system as weaknesses in the system that opened the door for the scheme Dowless allegedly perpetrated.

The N.C. State Board of Elections has since launched an online system, BallotTrax, that allows voters to follow their absentee ballot through the process from application to acceptance. And the witness requirement has been lowered to one temporarily because of the pandemic.

“There is no perfect election system, whether by mail or in person,” said Lucille Wenegieme of the National Vote at Home Institute. “What we do know about voting by mail is it’s quite secure in general in America. Even though there will be documented cases of bad actors, it’s almost always a single person as opposed to more coordinated efforts or at scale.

“We’re never going to be the folks who say it never, never happens,” she continued. “But it’s so incredibly rare that it’s alarming it’s such a big topic of conversation.”

Bladen County had other issues as well. In ordering the new 9th District election, the state board noted several security problems with the elections board’s office. The board had shared space with the county veterans affairs administration, leaving the tabulation computer and ballot room vulnerable.

The board now has the office to itself and a new security system with interior and exterior cameras. The key to the ballot vault used to hang on a wall; Williams, the election director, said he and his deputy have the only copies now.

So far, the raw request numbers in Bladen and neighboring Robeson County, which was also implicated in the absentee ballot fraud, indicate less of a demand for absentee ballots relative to statewide trends.

Across North Carolina, voters have requested more than six times as many absentee ballots for this election as in 2016 as of Oct. 15, but in Bladen and Robeson, the two counties have received 7,889 requests for absentee ballots, up from 4,180 in the disputed 2018 off-year election. Wake County, by comparison, had 22,258 requests for mail ballots in 2018 and 228,896 so far for this fall’s election.

This election is also an anomaly, being conducted amid a generational pandemic. The arms race between election authorities and would-be ballot harvesters may be temporarily suspended, but it is not over.

The changes in North Carolina law have made it more difficult to get the most important information — who’s getting absentee ballots in the mail and when they are going to get them — but would-be harvesters could still potentially go door-to-door attempting to solicit absentee requests and collect ballots, even if such an attempt would require enormous effort without knowing which voters to target.

“More sophisticated ways will come down the pipe,” said the Civitas Institute’s Jackson. “Now that they’ve opened the online absentee ballot request portal, you could walk around with a handheld device or tablet, have folks fill it out and submit it that way. You’re not supposed to retain the data, but you would have the info you need. In the future, that’s something to look out for.”

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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