Now in the spring of 2017, a more motivated Mark Harris considered a second challenge. And this time he meant to hire the same Bladen County operative who had appeared to be the secret weapon in his defeat.
That morning after the meeting at Ray Britt’s furniture store, Mark Harris walked John through what Dowless had told him about his two-step process. How Dowless sent workers to collect the absentee ballot request forms, which is legal, but not the absentee ballots themselves, which is illegal. How Dowless sent a team of two people to witness absentee ballots but not collect them, which is legal so long as both people who sign as witnesses actually watched the voter cast their ballot. How Dowless swore to him he wouldn’t take a 90-year-old woman’s ballot to the mailbox even if she asked. Based on Dowless’s presentation the day before, the elder Harris said, the operation seemed to be legal.
John didn’t believe it.
He tried to convince his father to stay away. Their conversation stretched on through John’s 20-minute drive into downtown Raleigh, as he sat in his car in the parking garage and as he walked across the street and sat on a bench outside of his office. John told his dad that Dowless was a convicted felon. The young man who was president of his high school honors council said he worried Dowless would do something illegal. And even if he didn’t, he still might do something that would stain the victory.
“You better believe that Robert Pittenger, if it’s a close race, he’s going to send everything after you to determine, you know, whether or not anything had gone on,” John told his dad.
John, by now pacing outside his office, said he had to go to work. But the conversation continued via email. The first note from John simply quoted the North Carolina statute that made it a felony to collect someone’s absentee ballot.
Mark responded a half hour later. “So you found no problem in handling ‘request forms?’ I am certain they have them mailed in then!”
John replied right away in an email that began with a cold admonition: “This is not legal advice.” It was as though he was talking to a would-be client whose case he knew was bad, a case he didn’t want to take. It was also as if he knew that one day his emails would be made public.
“The key thing that I am fairly certain they do that is illegal is that they collect the completed absentee ballots and mail them at once,” John wrote. “The way they pop up in batches at the board of elections makes me believe that. But if they simply leave the ballot with the voter and say be sure to mail this in, then that’s not illegal.”
Mark’s response to his scholar son’s well-reasoned, well-researched advice was hypothetical. “Mom brought up a good point,” Mark wrote, speaking of his wife, Beth. “Maybe they just go with the person to their personal mailbox and put it in, and raise the flag for the mailman to pick up. Since the ballot is already sealed and signed over the seal, they don’t pick them up, to my understanding, but rather encourage them to mail it that day by putting it in their mailbox and raising the flag.”
John, in disbelief, flung back one last reply. “Good test is if you’re comfortable with the full process he uses being broadcast on the news.”
Mark Harris didn’t respond. His answer came two weeks later when he started writing checks to Dowless to secure his services for the 2018 election.
On May 8, 2018, a year and change after the first meeting between Harris and Dowless, the primary election day broke sunny with temperatures in the upper 70s. A great day for people to show up to the polls. That is, if they hadn’t already voted.
By then, Dowless had introduced Harris to everyone he could find in Bladen County. He’d taken the candidate to the Beast Fest, Bladen’s fall festival named in honor of a mythical predator from the 1950s that supposedly was killing people’s pets, and to the peanut festival. Mark had eaten muscadine slushies and collard sandwiches, hyper-local delicacies, in his efforts to connect with the rural voters.
Harris and his campaign were on their way to paying Dowless about $130,000 to work three counties — Bladen, Robeson and Cumberland — over the course of the 2018 election. Dowless used the cash on various campaign expenses, including payments to workers on the ground. Dowless could have worked for Pittenger but he told us he liked Harris more, and he paid better. “I knew Pittenger wouldn’t have paid that much,” Dowless told us. “He’d have said $3,000 or $4,000. You can’t do three damn counties for $3,000 or $4,000. You can’t do it. And I said, ‘Hey, I’m not gonna do it.’”
His playbook was as it ever was. Dowless sent a small army of people to knock on doors, convince people to fill out an absentee ballot request form, and then follow up after the ballots arrived to make sure they actually voted. The workers drove down dirt roads and knocked on doors, not out of a love of politics or a sense of civic engagement. They did it for the cash. Dowless paid roughly $200 per stack of request forms.
By 2018, the opioid crisis was part of the fabric of Bladen County. The rate of unintentional deaths due to drugs was about 29 percent higher than anywhere else in North Carolina. Dowless and many of his non-user friends have a name for these addicts. Hearkening back to the days when people who worked in cotton mills were called “lintheads,” he calls them “pillheads.” People like that were looking for quick work for cash, and Dowless had stacks of it.
He was willing to hire them, but he gave them no leeway: payment upon receipt of the ballot request forms. No exceptions. “These people, if you don’t pay them to do something,” Dowless told us, “if you pay them an hourly rate, they’ll go sit under a tree.”
So these “pillheads,” as Dowless called them, collected the request forms and brought them back to him. They would either return them to his house, where he’d look them over sitting in his swivel chair at his kitchen table, or to his office a few miles away, where he’d hold court from a different swivel chair behind an old desk with a full ashtray.
He’d look over the forms, then put the initials of the person who collected it in the top right corner. That way, if the board of elections had any questions about the ballot request form, he knew which worker to call. He made a copy of each form before turning it in. This way, he’d have the voters’ information when the actual ballots went out, and he could send workers back to their houses to make sure they voted.