BLADENBORO, N.C. — Adam Delane Thompson wanted to vote but was not sure what to do with the absentee ballots he received in the mail this year for him, his fiancée and his daughter. So for guidance he called an old friend in Bladenboro, L. McCrae Dowless Jr., a low-level local official with a criminal record who nonetheless had once been feted as “guru of elections” in Bladen County.
Mr. Dowless soon had the sealed ballots in his hands and was off to the post office to mail them, Mr. Thompson said.
Mr. Thompson, who works in the maintenance department at a DuPont plant, said in an interview he was grateful. But the act was apparently illegal in North Carolina, where, except in limited circumstances, it is a felony to collect another person’s absentee ballot.
In this rural region near the state’s southern border, where candidates are often intimately known as neighbors, friends or enemies, Mr. Dowless ran a do-it-all vote facilitating business that was part of the community fabric.
While cash-driven voter turnout efforts are a cottage industry in campaign seasons, Mr. Dowless’s operation appeared to run like a family business that crossed lines laid out in election law.
Dozens of interviews and an examination of thousands of pages of documents portray Mr. Dowless, a former car salesman, as a local political opportunist who was quick to seek ballots, collect them or offer rides to the polls. He employed a network of part-time helpers, some of them his own relatives, who, lured by promises of swift cash payments, would fan out across southeastern North Carolina in get-out-the-vote efforts for whichever candidate happened to be footing that year’s bill.
But that network operated with little oversight and accountability, critics say, and now Mr. Dowless has drawn national scrutiny amid a sprawling electoral fraud investigation that could result in a rare redo in a race for Congress.
Investigators are examining accounts of Mr. Dowless and people connected to his operation collecting absentee ballots directly from residents. Word of this apparent practice has stirred fears that those ballots were reported — or not reported — in ways that helped the Republican nominee, Mark Harris, to prevail by just 905 votes last month.
The state’s election board has declined to certify Mr. Harris as the winner in the Ninth Congressional District, and is expected to hold an evidentiary hearing this month. On Friday, the state identified Mr. Dowless as a “person of interest” in its investigation.
The scandal has been a setback for Mr. Harris, a pastor-turned-aspiring lawmaker whose campaign strategists hired Mr. Dowless for a get-out-the vote drive. And it has been an embarrassment for leaders of the Republican Party, who have spent years fretting that electoral fraud could come from undocumented immigrants. Now they are grappling with the possibility that it may have come from one of their own.
But over the years, Democrats and Republicans alike in North Carolina courted Mr. Dowless, who, over almost 15 years, went from being a registered Democrat to unaffiliated to Democrat to unaffiliated to Republican. They fraternized with him, and hired him to work his magic in service of boosting their vote tallies. They did so even though local news reports going back to at least 2010 noted his criminal record, which included felony convictions for perjury and fraud.
And they did so despite longstanding rumors that his get-out-the-vote tactics were unsavory at the least, and perhaps illegal.
“I only knew of him that he was crooked, as far as elections are concerned, and he had a way of doing it, and avoided prosecution and that kind of thing,” said Ben Snyder, the chairman of the Bladen County Democratic Party, who said he did not meet Mr. Dowless in person until 2016.
The town of Bladenboro in Bladen County, N.C. The county and North Carolina’s Ninth District are ensnarled in a potential election fraud case.CreditVeasey Conway for The New York Times
Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, said he had heard “a lot of chatter” about voter turnout operations over the years in Bladen County but paid it little mind because prosecutors never brought cases.
“Nothing sort of ever happened,” he said, “so I think you assume that there’s a whole lot of noise.”
In Bladen County this year, Mr. Harris won 61 percent of the accepted absentee ballots, even though registered Republicans accounted for only 19 percent of the ballots submitted.
Both the state elections board and the United States House of Representatives, which Democrats will control beginning in January, could force a new election in North Carolina.
On Wednesday night, Mr. Dowless opened his door with a cigarette between his knuckles as a holiday light machine projected a whirling, speckled glow onto his modest house. In the side yard, a campaign sign for Mr. Harris rested in the grass.
Mr. Dowless said he could not talk, given the controversy. “I don’t mean to be rude,” he said.
On Friday, he again declined to be interviewed but this time recited a phone number for a lawyer, who did not respond to a message.
Local residents said Mr. Dowless — who is also a soil and water conservation district supervisor — was busy but available. “If you need help he’s going to help you out,” said Barry Hester, 64, a retired construction worker who went to high school with Mr. Dowless. “Like people who aren’t so fortunate. If they need a ride, they’ll call McCrae.’’
Politicians and voters said Mr. Dowless depended on cash and a short paper trail.
“Everything was verbal,” said Pete Givens, who briefly hired Mr. Dowless for a Charlotte City Council campaign last year.
The Dowless operation also relied on workers like Ginger Eason, who told WSOC, a Charlotte television station, that Mr. Dowless paid her $75 to $100 a week to go door to door this year to encourage people to vote for Mr. Harris and a candidate for sheriff. She also said she picked up completed absentee ballots and brought them to Mr. Dowless, but was not sure what he did with them.
“I don’t know nothing what happened after I dropped them off,” she said.
Kirby Wright, 47, and his mother, Doris Lee Hammonds, 77, recall that a women they recognized as Ms. Eason came to their home one night to pick up their absentee ballots.
The pair had thick envelopes containing their absentee ballots but never filled them out. When Ms. Eason came by, she said she needed them.
“I told her I was going to throw it away,” Mr. Wright said in an interview. “It was blank. She said, ‘No, I’ve got to pick up all the empty ballots.’” Ms. Eason could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Wright said he isn’t sure what happened to the ballot designated for his mother, who is bedridden. It might have been thrown in the trash, he said. But state records show Ms. Hammonds cast an absentee ballot by mail. Ms. Hammonds, also interviewed, said she never filled it out or signed the absentee ballot at all.
Ms. Eason told the Charlotte television station that she never discarded any ballots. But a large number of unreturned absentee ballots in Bladen County, as well as adjacent Robeson County, prompted concerns among elections officials, campaign strategists and independent researchers that Mr. Dowless’s network may have engaged in wider fraud.
So do the accounts of some voters. At Village Oaks, an apartment complex in Bladenboro, several residents said they had seen a truck at the complex with a Harris campaign placard at the same time that groups of three or four women would appear to collect ballots or encourage people to request absentee ballots during election season.
“They were around, saying they would help people cast absentee ballots,” said Barbie Silvas, who mailed in a ballot this year. “They said, ‘I’m here for McCrae to help people to vote.’”
A Formula for Victories
Mr. Dowless appeared in the news in the early 1990s after he was accused of taking out, and collecting on, a life insurance policy on an employee who had just died, backdating it and forging a signature. He ultimately spent about six months in prison, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
Less than two decades later, he was one of a handful of get-out-the-vote experts who wielded significant influence in Bladen County, a struggling rural area where one in four people live below the poverty line. Records show that beginning in 2009, at least seven Democratic and Republican candidates paid him for work.
In 2010, Mr. Dowless worked for a Democratic candidate for district attorney. A local television station at that time named Mr. Dowless as one of “a few heavy hitters in the Bladen County get-out-the-vote arena.” Part of the local political culture, the station reported, involved political operatives distributing sample ballots for which they had sold spots to the highest-bidding candidates.
The Republican candidate, Jonathan M. David, eventually won the election. He criticized the pay-to-play tactics, which he said “lets a small group of people who don’t have the best interest of the community at heart, but their own financial interest at stake, to dictate who becomes important leaders in their community.”
That same year produced a political landmark for Bladen County, which elected a Democrat as its first black sheriff.
The racial backlash — the county was then 56 percent white and 35 percent black — was palpable, recalled Patsy Sheppard, now a vice chairwoman of the local Democratic Party. She recalled hearing her fellow whites say, “We need a white sheriff.”
When a white challenger, James A. McVicker, emerged in 2014, Mr. Dowless was able to earn several thousand dollars in cash helping to get him elected by running a 20-worker absentee ballot operation.
According to records in a lawsuit, Mr. Dowless was paid $5,800 in cash by Jeffrey Smith, the owner of a video gambling parlor, who was worried that the incumbent sheriff would raid the business.
Mr. McVicker, a Republican, won — and Mr. Smith’s business was raided anyway. His company filed a lawsuit against the new sheriff and noted that Mr. McVicker had won the election by almost 350 votes. Mr. Smith’s lawyers implied in a court filing that without “Mr. Dowless’ efforts” on absentee ballots, Mr. McVicker would not have won.
In 2014, state records show, Mr. Dowless opened a consulting business with Jens L. Lutz, a local Democratic activist. Mr. Lutz, one of two Democrats on Bladen County’s four-member elections board, said Friday that he only went into business with Mr. Dowless as a kind of sleuthing operation to root out the unethical tactics he thought Mr. Dowless employed.
“I knew there was some suspicion and I was doing it to solidify any suspicion of any wrongdoing,” Mr. Lutz said, but added that he found it difficult to learn many of Mr. Dowless’s methods. (After The New York Times questioned Mr. Lutz on Friday about his dealings with Mr. Dowless, Mr. Lutz resigned from the elections board.)
Meanwhile, word had spread to neighboring Robeson County that Mr. Dowless had a formula for delivering victories. Mickey Meekins heard the word, and decided to call Mr. Dowless when decided to run for county commissioner in 2014.
But after paying Mr. Dowless $20,000, Mr. Meekins rapidly became disenchanted.
“They actually didn’t get no vote,” said Mr. Meekins, who lost, adding that he assumed Mr. Dowless used sloppy or suspect tactics.
The Tally: 221 of 226
In January 2016, the consulting firm he founded with Mr. Lutz dissolved, but Mr. Dowless continued his own work. One client was Todd Johnson, a Republican who, along with Mr. Harris, wanted to unseat Robert M. Pittenger, the incumbent congressman in the Ninth District.
Mr. Johnson, who lives near Charlotte, a city almost three hours from Bladen County’s seat, finished last in the primary race, but dominated in Bladen. Of 226 absentee-by-mail votes in the county, Mr. Johnson received 221.
Mr. Pittenger recalled that he, too, could have hired Mr. Dowless. The men met, the congressman said, but Mr. Pittenger “quickly ended the meeting over personal concerns with his proposal.”
“We didn’t talk long enough for me to gather detailed information,” Mr. Pittenger said. “I just knew I didn’t want to be involved with him.”
In April, just ahead of this year’s Republican primary, Herman Dunn, Bladen County’s former chief deputy sheriff, saw Mr. Dowless at a polling place.
Mr. Dunn wrote in an affidavit that Mr. Dowless told him he was “doing absentee” work for both Mr. McVicker, the sheriff, and Mr. Harris.
“You know I don’t take checks,” Mr. Dowless said, according to Mr. Dunn, who had worked for the sheriff Mr. McVicker defeated. “They have to pay me cash.”
According to Mr. Dunn, Mr. Dowless also boasted that he had more than 80 people under his command in Mr. Harris’s race. (That figure could not be independently corroborated. Red Dome Group, the consulting firm that contracted with Mr. Dowless on behalf of Mr. Harris’s campaign, did not respond to requests for comment.)
As the state’s investigation into potential fraud continues, people like Jeneva Legions wonder about their voting experiences. Ms. Legions, 30, who lives in the Village Oaks apartments, said she’d had her absentee ballot for a day or two when several women came to her door. One of the women said, ‘Are you Jeneva? I’ve come to get your ballot,’” Ms. Legions said.
When Ms. Legions told them she had not voted yet, one of the women told her she should sign the ballot and fill in her Social Security number. The women left, Ms. Legions said. Not long afterward, one of the women returned.
“I gave it to her,” Ms. Legions said in a telephone interview. “I thought she worked for the county. I thought she was one of the voting people coming to get my ballot.”
Ms. Legions said she had not sealed the envelope when she gave it to the woman. Her ballot, records show, was never returned to elections officials.