In Bladen County, where elections officials are investigating potential elections tampering, a small group of 12 people attested as official witnesses for 294 mail-in ballots, or nearly 40 percent of mail-in ballots from Bladen County.
What's more, the same group accounted for both of the required signatures for 151 of those ballots, according to a WUNC analysis of 796 mail-in-ballot envelopes from Bladen County.
Mail-in ballots require not only the signature of the voter, but also of two witnesses. While serving as a witness for multiple mail-in ballots isn't in itself a crime, it raises questions about the motivations and actions of those witnesses.
Controversy has mired the race for North Carolina's 9 Congressional District, a race in which Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. The N.C. Board of Elections has not yet certified that election, specifically because of questions around mail-in ballots.
On Thursday, McCready withdrew his concession. In a Twitter message he said, "Last week, we began to learn about shameful criminal activity, bankrolled by my opponent, to take away North Carolinians very rights to vote. I didn't serve overseas on the Marine Corp, just to come back home to watch politicians and career criminals attack our democracy."
I didn’t serve overseas in the Marines to come home to NC and watch a criminal, bankrolled by my opponent, take away people’s very right to vote. Today I withdraw my concession and call on Mark Harris to end his silence and tell us exactly what he knew, and when. pic.twitter.com/2hcT00DVhQ
— Dan McCready for NC (@McCreadyForNC) December 6, 2018
That race stands out for a few reasons. First, there was an exceptionally high amount of mail-in ballots that were not returned. Also, mail-in ballots from Bladen County turned in results that were highly unusual. While only 19 percent of the returned ballots came from registered Republican voters, Harris won 61 percent of the vote from those ballots.
One man – McCrae Dowless – filed requests for an unusually high number of mail-in ballots. Now, there are a group of people who appear as an unusually high number of witness signatures. Two of those in the group share Dowless' last name.
To complete a mail in ballot, typically a voter sends a request to the local board of elections. When the official ballot arrives back to the voter by mail, he or she marks the ballot and folds it into an envelope provided by the elections board. The voter then signs the envelope attesting its accuracy. The voter then must get either a licensed notary to also sign the envelope, or get signatures from two witnesses who attest that the ballot in the envelope was filled out by that voter.
In some cases, the same witness will appear on multiple ballots. Consider an example in which neighbors who trust each other, Dominic and Leslie Willis and Gustavo and Brandi Andrade, serve as one another's witnesses. Dominic and Leslie might sign as the witnesses for both Gustavo and Brandi, and vice versa. Across Bladen County, this kind of witness sharing played out many times. However, it was exceedingly rare to see any one name more than a few times – except for the 12 names that popped up nearly 300 times.