Man at center of US House District 9 ballot fraud rejects plea deal, state trial date set

WAKE COUNTY, N.C. — The man at the center of the election fraud scandal in the 2018 U.S. House District 9 race pleaded not guilty on Monday and had his trial date set on state charges.

Channel 9 reporter Joe Bruno was in the Wake County courtroom as McCrae Dowless denied a plea deal that would have required him to spend a year in prison and five years on probation. He would have been allowed to serve six months concurrently with his federal sentence for Social Security fraud, meaning the plea would have only have added a few more months to his prison sentence.

Channel 9 uncovered the move that led to McCrae Dowless’s arrest and the unanimous vote from the state board of elections for a new election the following year in District 9′s congressional race.

The case moved slowly through the court system due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Wake County district attorney Lorrin Freeman said it is important to see it through.

“I think the state has compelling interest in this, and in voter integrity and election integrity,” Freeman said.

Dowless is charged with paying workers to collect absentee ballots in Bladen County for Republican candidate Mark Harris -- a felony under North Carolina law. Anyone other than a guardian or close family member cannot handle a mail-in ballot because it poses the risk that it could be altered or discarded. That means ballot-harvesting -- efforts to collect completed ballots -- are illegal.

[TIMELINE: US House District 9 race investigation: How we got here]

Dowless was additionally indicted after officials found absentee ballot irregularities in Bladen County again during the 2016 general election. The elections weren’t Dowless’s first time being associated with election fraud. He had been on the radar of state elections investigators since 2010, when he was suspected, but never charged, with being among a group buying votes.

In addition to Dowless, those helping him harvest ballots were also charged in the scandal. Harris was cleared of criminal charges.

Dowless’s trial date is set for Aug 29, 2022. He didn’t have anything to say following his hearing.

He faces 13 total felony counts: four counts of obstruction of justice, three counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice, three counts of possession of absentee ballot, two perjury counts and one count of common law obstruction of justice.

Freeman said the allegations are serious and it is important for people to have trust in their elections.

“The allegations that have risen out of this investigation have centered around election activity and maintaining the integrity of the election system,” Freeman said. “That is something the state of North Carolina has a very strong interest in.”

The plea deal will remain on the table until Nov. 30. Freeman said Dowless has time to change his mind if he wants. If he is found guilty, Dowless could be looking at several years in prison.

Dowless still must report to federal prison on social security charges. He asked to report to prison by April 1 instead of December 1 because of health reasons. A judge granted that request in November.

Past coverage:

(PREVIOUS COVERAGE: DA: No evidence to charge Mark Harris in NC District 9 election fraud investigation)