Four people pleaded guilty on Monday to helping commit absentee ballot fraud in rural North Carolina during the 2016 and 2018 elections. Their voter fraud activities were uncovered as a result of a larger investigation that in part led to a do-over of a 2019 congressional election.
Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway accepted the misdemeanor plea agreements in Wake County court. The cases against six other defendants remained pending, with hearings scheduled through the end of next month, Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said.
Rebecca D. Thompson; Tonia Marie Gordon; Ginger Shae Eason; and Kelly Hendrix all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess absentee ballots. They all received suspended jail sentences, probation, and 100 hours of community service.
Each of the four originally had been indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit felony obstruction of justice and possessing illegally an absentee ballot that belonged to someone else.
All 10 defendants, according to indictments from 2019, had a common involvement with Leslie McCrae Dowless, Jr., a longtime political operative in rural Bladen County.
Freeman described the plea agreements as appropriate, identifying the defendants as local residents who met Dowless and agreed to help him out. Hendrix, who was indicted for both the 2016 and 2018 elections, met Dowless while she worked at a Hardee’s in Bladen County, according to Freeman.
“Mr. Dowless really was the ringleader in organizing all of this,” Freeman told the judge. “The individuals involved in these cases often were doing it out of some affiliation or feeling loyalty to him - maybe a little bit of money here and there.”
The district attorney said Gordon, who was indicted in relation to the 2016 general election, told investigators that Dowless paid her $100 for every 20 completed absentee ballot request forms and $5 for every completed absentee ballot she collected. Collecting the request forms isn't necessarily unlawful.
Hendrix attorney Pete Wood told Ridgeway the plea agreement was a “good outcome” for his client: “Why did she do what she did? Because she was friends with Mr. Dowless... that doesn't excuse it.”
Dowless also was indicted on more than a dozen state charges, with his case scheduled last year to go to trial last month. He had rejected a plea agreement and looked forward to his day in court, according to a friend. But he died in April after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Freeman said at the time that the prosecution of the other cases would continue.
After Hearing Testimony, Republican Candidate Called for New Election
Dowless worked in the 2018 congressional race for then-Republican candidate Mark Harris, who appeared to have received the most votes in the general election for the 9th District seat in south-central North Carolina.
Harris unexpectedly dropped his bid to be declared the winner, however, and instead called for a new election after listening to three days of testimony at the State Board of Elections in February of 2019. He denied any knowledge of the illegal practices allegedly used by those working on his behalf.
The election board voted unanimously to order a new 9th District election. No charges were filed against Harris, who didn’t run in the subsequent election that was won in September 2019 by Republican Dan Bishop.
Ballot Harvesting Concerns
Absentee ballot harvesting has been a major concern in recent elections, especially after the pandemic opened the door to relaxed voting procedures like extensive early voting.
When allegations against Dowless surfaced, testimony and other information revealed at an elections board hearing described him as running an illegal “ballot harvesting” operation for the 2018 general election in Bladen County. In it, according to testimony, Dowless and his helpers gathered up hundreds of absentee ballots from voters by offering to put them in the mail.
Some of the workers said they were directed to collect blank or incomplete ballots, forge signatures on them and even fill in votes for local candidates.
It is against the law in North Carolina for anyone other than the voter or a family member to handle someone’s completed ballot.
The state investigation also led to charges of similar absentee ballot activities in Bladen for the 2016 general election and 2018 primary.
The legal cases for the defendants were delayed in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which slowed court proceedings. Freeman also waited while a federal case against Dowless was resolved.
Dowless pleaded guilty in June 2021 to obtaining illegal Social Security benefits while concealing payments for political work he performed. He had worked for Harris’ campaign during some of the time scrutinized by federal prosecutors. He received a six-month prison sentence that he never served when his health deteriorated.