- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The political operative at the heart of the the ballot-harvesting scandal that derailed a North Carolina congressional election was arrested Wednesday on criminal charges.

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., 63, was charged with illegally collecting absentee ballots for the 2018 campaign of Republican Mark Harris, which undid Mr. Harris’ Nov. 6 win in the 9th District, which spans the area between Charlotte and Fayetteville.

Mr. Dowless, a longtime political operative in the state, is facing charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice and possess of absentee ballots.

He also was charged with running the same scheme in the 2016 elections, and some of the people he paid to collect ballots also were charged.

The scandal prevented election officials from certifying Nov. 6 results that showed Mr. Harris beating Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. Last week, after a four-day hearing detailing the ballot-harvesting scheme, the State Board of Elections ordered a new election.

The 9th District seat has been empty since the new Congress convened Jan. 3 and it likely will remain that way for most of the year pending a new primary and general election.

A grand jury in Wake County, North Carolina, handed down a seven-count criminal indictment that included obstruction and illegal ballot possession.

Mr. Dowless didn’t immediately respond to a voicemail message the Associated Press left on his cell phone. A woman who answered the phone at his lawyer’s office hung up.

The arrest of Mr. Dowless drew cheers from voting-rights advocates.

“The charges issued against Dowless make clear that coordinated efforts to steal and suppress votes are alive and well in our country,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “It is time to pour more resources into combatting ballot theft and voter suppression schemes, and those behind such efforts must be held accountable.”

In North Carolina, it is illegal for a voter’s absentee ballot to be handled by anyone other than a close relative or appointed guardian.

A few states allow ballot harvesting, and Democrats have largely defended the practice in those states, such as California, where it appears to benefit Democratic candidates.

Evidence showed Mr. Dowless hired workers to collect absentee ballots.

In some cases he allegedly filled in ballots. Other ballots were unsealed when they arrived at the polls, according to testimony at the hearing.

Prosecutors are still digging into the evidence of ballot tampering.

The district, which has been in GOP hands since the 1960s, has been rated a toss-up since 2018. But the fraud charges have energized Democrats heading into the special election.

Mr. Harris announced Tuesday that he will not run in the new election, citing ill health.

Former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, also said he won’t run. Former Rep. Robert Pittinger, who occupied the seat until losing the 2018 primary to Mr. Harris, previously said he would not run agin.

Mr. McCready enters the primary as the presumptive frontrunner with enough clout to clear the field.

“We’ll have a chance to right that wrong — and we can’t miss that chance. This isn’t just about a seat in Congress. It’s about our democracy. That’s why I’m still fighting,” Mr. McCready said in a fundraising email.

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