Trial Date Set for Man Accused of Ballot Fraud in 2016, 2018 Elections

A North Carolina judge set an August trial date for a man accused of committing ballot fraud in elections dating to 2016, including a 2018 election whose results were later tossed, the Associated Press reported. Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. faces 13 criminal counts that include charges of obstruction of justice, possessing absentee ballots and perjury.

Dowless was charged on the state level in 2019 for the alleged crimes related to the 2016 general election and the 2018 primary and general elections. The results of the 2018 congressional election Dowless is charged in connection to were ultimately thrown out, the AP reported.

Dowless has to make it through a federal prison sentence anticipated to start Dec. 1 before undergoing trial, scheduled for Aug. 29 by Superior Court Judge Keith Gregory, for the state charges. The federal sentence came after he pleaded guilty in June to illegally obtaining Social Security benefits while hiding payments he received for completing political work.

Dowless has pleaded not guilty to the state charges and turned down a plea deal, which would have given him an extra six months of imprisonment after his federal term, offered by District Attorney Lorrin Freeman during a court appearance Monday.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Trial Set for Ballot Fraud Case
A North Carolina judge on Nov. 15, 2021, set an August trial date for a man accused of ballot fraud dating to 2016, including a 2018 congressional election whose results ultimately got tossed out. Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, N.C., on Dec. 5, 2018. Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP

Freeman said the offer on the election-related counts would remain on the table until Nov. 30 should Dowless change his mind. After that date, Gregory told Dowless, he risked substantial prison time if he were to be convicted at trial, adding, "Your exposure is significant."

Freeman said after the hearing attended by Dowless and his lawyer that he would have had to plead guilty to 12 of the 13 charges in accepting the plea offer.

Dowless worked in 2017 and 2018 in part for 9th Congressional District candidate Mark Harris. Witnesses alleged to state officials that Dowless, with help of his assistants, gathered hundreds of absentee ballots from Bladen County where he lives. Those workers alleged that they were directed to collect blank or incomplete ballots, forge signatures on them and even fill in votes for local candidates.

Harris appeared to get the most votes in the November 2018 race, but the State Board of Elections ordered a new election. Harris did not run in the subsequent race, which was won by his successor as the GOP nominee, Dan Bishop. No charges were filed against Harris.

Dowless' attorney Drew Sprague told Gregory he was concerned about meeting trial deadlines because of Dowless' medical condition. Dowless, who arrived in court using a cane, had a mini-stroke recently, and he learned that some spots on his lung may be cancer, according to Sprague.

Gregory told Sprague to keep him and Freeman informed on his condition. Sprague said after the hearing that Dowless had no comment.

Freeman said that while her office is mindful of Dowless' health, she said it's important that the case advance because the "state has a compelling interest in this and in voter integrity and election integrity," noting that it dates to the 2016 election cycle.

"We are now five years past the time of that election," Freeman told reporters. "We're ready to move forward in the matter and try and bring it to some resolution."

During the hearing, it sounded to several in the courtroom that Sprague had pleaded guilty on behalf of Dowless to some of the 13 counts. But Freeman said afterward it was a "misstatement" and that Dowless had pleaded not guilty to all of the counts. Sprague confirmed later that was his client's intent.

Ballot Fraud Case
A North Carolina judge set an August trial date for a man accused of committing ballot fraud in the 2016 and 2018 elections. A woman fills out her ballot on Election Day on November 3, 2020, in St. Pauls, North Carolina. Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images