In N.C. election fraud case, witness says operative held onto 800 absentee ballots

The new affidavit is the latest development in an investigation into election fraud involving absentee ballots.

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By Leigh Ann Caldwell, Rich Gardella and Ben Kamisar

WASHINGTON — McCrae Dowless, whose “get-out-the-vote" activities are at the center of the election fraud investigation in North Carolina, told a local political campaign volunteer that he was holding onto 800 absentee ballots, according to a new affidavit obtained by NBC News.

The affidavit is the latest development in an investigation involving absentee ballots that has postponed the certification of the results in the 9th Congressional District and in at least two other races in the state.

In the signed statement, Kenneth Simmons said that he met Dowless at a Republican Party meeting in the small town of Dublin, which is in Bladen County, the epicenter of the investigation.

Simmons wrote that he and his wife saw Dowless with a large number of absentee ballots “in his possession.”

Simmons stated that he asked Dowless why he had so many ballots and that Dowless responded that he was holding onto more than 800. Simmons wrote that he “asked him why he had not turned them in” and that Dowless replied: “You don’t do that until the last day because the opposition would know how many votes they had to make up.”

“My concern,” Simmons concluded at the end of his affidavit, “was that these ballots were not going to be turned in.”

Simons signed the affidavit on Dec. 11 and confirmed his account to NBC News when reached by phone at his home Tuesday.

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The new affidavit comes as the North Carolina State Board of Elections’ investigation into potential fraudulent activity in Bladen County is zeroing on Dowless.

Last week, the state election board released a copy of an election results tape printed at Bladen County's only in-person early vote location the Saturday before the election. Tabulating early preliminary results violates state election law.

In a separate affidavit dated Nov. 29 and distributed to media by the North Carolina Democratic Party and other sources, an individual named Agnes Willis alleges that the tape “was run after the polls closed, and was viewed by officials at the one-stop site who were not [poll] Judges."

Dowless and an associate requested nearly 800 absentee ballots, according to records previously released by the election board and analyzed by NBC News. He and associates, whom he reportedly paid, would collect the ballots throughout Bladen and neighboring Robeson County.

In her affidavit, Willis, identified as a precinct worker by The Charlotte Observer, doesn’t name or describe the “officials” whom she claimed viewed the partial results data.

The election results tape document itself includes a signature for “Agnes Willis,” one of three under a statement certifying the incomplete results as “a true and accurate account of the election held November 6, 2018.” Willis’ affidavit does not address that detail.

The development has led a top North Carolina Republican Party official to “likely” support a new election in the 9th District. The State Board of Elections is investigating allegations of irregularities and fraudulent activities related to absentee by-mail voting and potentially other matters in that race, and has not certified the initially reported election results.

The Republican nominee in the 9th District, Mark Harris, won more than 61 percent of Bladen County’s mail-in ballots, a puzzling margin considering just 19 percent of accepted mail-in ballots belonged to registered Republican voters.

"We are extremely concerned that early voting totals may have been leaked in Bladen County as reported by The Charlotte Observer,” said Robin Hayes, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, in a press release. “This action by election officials would be a fundamental violation of the sense of fair play, honesty, and integrity that the Republican Party stands for," Hayes said.

In a news conference in Raleigh on Tuesday, the leader of the North Carolina Democratic Party, Wayne Goodwin, asked why Harris decided to hire Dowless.

"McCrae Dowless has a long history of conducting absentee ballot fraud that was well documented. Yet Mark Harris still hired him,” Goodwin said. “And now Harris refuses to answer several questions about their relationship.”

Dowless was hired by the Red Dome consulting group, who worked for Harris, for grassroots efforts in Bladen County.

Harris released a video statement on Twitter on Friday saying that his campaign is cooperating fully and that he was unaware of any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, the three-judge panel in a North Carolina lawsuit involving Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and the leaders of the state's Republican-controlled legislature issued an order Tuesday effectively extending the current North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement through noon on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018.

The board is investigating allegations of “irregularities and fraudulent activities related to absentee by-mail voting and potentially other matters in the 9th Congressional District contest.”

In its order, the court wrote that the board “is still engaged in the process of attempting to certify the results of the November 2018 Statewide elections” and that “failing to extend the stay for an additional term may likely impede the efficient resolution of the issues still pending before the Board, and may cast the results of the November Elections into further confusion and negatively impact the confidence that the people of North Carolina have in the results of that election.”

The previous stay had extended only through Dec. 12.