Inside his barber shop in Bladenboro, N.C., Rodney Baxley is giving Bobby Simmons a haircut.
The two men are talking about what everyone in this part of the state has been talking about for the better part of the past month: McCrae Dowless, and the operation he was running to get out the vote for Republican Mark Harris in the congressional race in North Carolina’s 9th District.
“I don’t think [Dowless] cares about who wins, as long as he gets paid,” Baxley says, as he trims just above Simmons’ right ear.
“He’s in it for the cash,” Simmons chimes in.
Bladen County, where Baxley’s barber shop is located, is rural, about 150 miles east of Charlotte, and home to the country’s largest pork processing plant, Smithfield Foods.
The North Carolina Board of Election’s investigation into possible election fraud has cast a dark, cynical cloud over the community here.
“It just shows you how sleazy politics are,” Baxley says.
Investigation rolls on
Dowless has been named a person of interest in the investigation.
Leading up to this year’s election, he was paid by a consulting firm hired by Harris to help with get-out-the-vote efforts, but those efforts may have gone too far.
A number of voters have come forward this year to say Dowless collected their ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina — only a voter or their relative can return an absentee ballot. One man even signed an affidavit this week saying he saw Dowless with as many as 800 ballots in his possession before the election.
All of that has the State Board of Elections looking into whether the ballots Dowless handled were actually turned in, or whether they were manipulated in some way. Harris remarkably won 61 percent of the absentee ballots in Bladen County, despite registered Republicans only turning in 19 percent of the absentee ballots.
Ultimately, the State Board will decide whether a new election is necessary, and the North Carolina legislature passed a bill Wednesday that would require a new primary election as well, if a new general election is called.
“Absentee ballots are supposed to be for folks who are off working or overseas or in the military, but that’s not the way it’s done around here,” Baxley says. “They get these people to do absentee ballots so they can control some of them.
“Worst of the worst”
NPR has reached out to Dowless but he has declined multiple requests for comment.
Pat Melvin, a realtor in Elizabethtown, N.C., has been a friend of Dowless for 30 years. He says the accusations being made against Dowless and the Harris campaign are going to ruin politics in the state’s 9th District.
“We’ll never have any decent people run for office again,” Melvin says. “You’re just going to get the worst of the worst.”
Melvin says Dowless didn’t do anything illegal. Bladen is a poor county. And Melvin says Dowless was just going into low-income and senior citizen housing units to combat Democratic efforts to court those voters.
“Those people wouldn’t give a s**t about who they voted for, regardless. They have nothing to do with politics,” Melvin says. “When one side’s doing it, it was perfectly fine. Nobody’s ever complained about it. But then the other side started realizing this is what it’s going to take to win a race, that’s basically what happened.”
A 2016 episode of This American Life focused on accusations in Bladen County of similar election fraud perpetrated by the Democrats, but no wrongdoing was ever uncovered.
Sandra Hines lives in the Hill Estates in Bladensboro, one of the senior communities that Dowless and his team were seen collecting ballots in. She has lived in Bladen on and off all her life.
“Every time I come back, I get disillusioned. I leave and I come back, I leave and I come back,” Hines says. “You go away and you come back in 10 or 20 years and it still looks the same. No progress. Nothing.”
Hines says two women came to her door before the general election and signed her up for an absentee ballot. She received it and mailed it in, however, without handing it over to a third party.
Still, the ongoing investigation has her suspicious.
“That makes me wonder about any of the other elections,” she says. “What else has been crookedly done?”
She says she’s planning to leave Bladen again this summer, to move to California to be with her son and grandchildren.
When asked whether her faith in the democratic system has been affected by this election, she replies, “Oh yes. That’s been quite shattered with all this.”