In November 2018, a blue wave brought election victory to Democrats in North Carolina and across the country, sparking a Republican backlash of dubious voter fraud claims. Though those allegations were largely false, a genuine – and genuinely strange – election fraud story emerged.
Republican Mark Harris pulled out a narrow victory in the ninth congressional district. But that result was scuttled when an elaborate ballot-harvesting scheme by McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County political operative in Harris’s employ, was exposed. The ensuing scandal led to national headlines, indictments, the downfall of state Republican leadership and a national media scrum.
This month a new book by two veteran North Carolina journalists goes inside the scandal, with exclusive access to Dowless and the cultural and historical context that made the offenses not just possible but inevitable.
In The Vote Collectors, Michael Graff (Axios Charlotte) and Nick Ochsner (WBTV-Charlotte) write that the situation became a sort of Rorschach test in which different people could see the events and characters according to their own political interests. To Republicans, it was proof that voter fraud existed, and a starting point for arguments that it must be much more pervasive than is acknowledged. For Democrats, it was a satisfying irony; in a season of myriad voter fraud accusations lodged by the GOP, the most consequential and well-documented case involved Republican politicians and operatives.
In an interview this week, Graff and Ochsner talked about how they got beyond those partisan takes to tell a much richer story about North Carolina, its racial and political history. and how an election scandal in a poor, rural and largely overlooked part of the state became a preamble to national political firestorms in the years that followed.
The Vote Collectors is the product of the friendship between Graff and Ochsner, reporters for different outlets who saw a unique chance to join their separate talents to tell the deeper story most national media missed when they parachuted in to cover the firestorm.
“I don’t think the book would have been near as good had either one of us written it ourselves,” Ochsner said.
“Mike’s attention to detail, his ability to weave narrative arcs through solid reporting, all those things are things Mike can do that I just frankly can’t,” Ochsner said. “And I brought the ability to get access to people and documents in this case. I brought all the characters and I needed someone to help me tell their stories. And who better to help me do that?”
Graff said Ochsner’s reporting skill provided the key to unlocking a story he had for years known was important: the ugly, often violent political and racial history of Eastern North Carolina and how its past in many ways drives the state’s present.
“I’d always had the idea to write a book about Eastern North Carolina,” Graff said. “But I didn’t have the idea of who the character or the mule would be to carry the book through. I didn’t know who that would be.”
McCrae Dowless, the darkly charismatic political operative at the center of the scandal, ended up being that character. But as the glare of national media turned on him and criminal charges were leveled, he became notoriously media shy. Ochsner, himself an Eastern North Carolina native, managed to get to him through a combination of shoe-leather reporting, leveraging relationships with sources, and many hours, days and weeks of conversations with Dowless.
“A lot of people would have given up McRae Dowless as a source early on and blown the whole book,” Graff said. “Nick didn’t do that.”
Dowless didn’t want to go on record for something like a TV story. But he was open to larger, longer conversations for something bigger — a book that would tell the whole story after the flames of the initial story died down.
“All of this time we were watching people tweet about McCrae and say things about him,” Graff said. “And we’re talking to him and interviewing him as he’s the focus of all this national attention. It’s a weird thing to watch the world talk about somebody that you know better than they do. In this modern media world you kind of have to keep your mouth shut about it. You’re going for a longer game, hoping to tell the bigger story and not just make him a cardboard cut out.”
In addition to telling the longer, messier but more accurate story of Dowless’s ballot harvesting operation, the pair went deep into Bladen County and North Carolina history to illuminate the roots of the social and political conflicts still fueling modern elections.
The Wilmington Massacre. White supremacist politicians and newspaper publishers manipulating events, rewriting history. Desegregation and school busing. Murders, lynchings, firebombings. The election of a black politicians and the subsequent powerful white backlash.
“One of the most frustrating things for me was listening to people talk about what happened in 2018 like it was an isolated incident,” Ochsner said. “Or like this was one dude who did one thing for one candidate in one race. None of that is true. But to understand that, you have to understand the history of the area and the history of of both politics and race. Oftentimes those are the same or they intersect and clash. Unless you understand that, you’re not going to have a full appreciation of what happened in 2018.”
Graff had done a lot of reporting in Eastern North Carolina, including research into the under-reported history of the area and the state, from efforts to oust Gov. William Holden during Reconstruction to KKK rides through towns that were holding elections.
“Holy cow,” Graff said he thought as he read some of the stories whose echoes could be seen in modern politics. “In some ways, elections have never been fair.”
It seemed to Graff that Eastern North Carolina was, in many ways, the historical heart of the effort to get Black representation in historical bodies and the ensuing white backlash.
In retrospect, that story has only become more relevant since Graff and Ochsner first conceived of their book in 2018, from the attempted insurrection in the U.S. capitol of 2020 to the members of the anti-government extremist group The Oath Keepers now serving in the North Carolina General Assembly.
“It’s important that we look at these things to know that America has been at this point before, and how we handled it in a way that our Democracy survived,” Ochsner said.
In the 2016 election cycle, then-Governor Pat McCrory fought his loss to Democratic challenger Roy Cooper for nearly a month. His erroneous claims were dismissed even by county election boards dominated by fellow Republicans and by his own GOP political appointees. But the episode presaged former President Donald Trump’s later false claims about election fraud being at the heart of his loss to Democrat Joe Biden in 2020.
The North Carolina political struggles and scandals leading up to 2020 are examples of a flawed system ultimately working, Ochsner and Graff said. Despite political appointments, political pressure and a deluge of lies about the electoral system and how it works or doesn’t, fair elections in North Carolina were upheld and election fraud was outed and dealt with. But that fraud had been happening for years and could have been caught sooner.
“The system has to work,” Ochsner said. “What happened in 2016 was the system working. But the whole reason we had the 2018 debacle, the election scandal, is because systems failed. The board of elections did its job and said, we should look into all of these people. The board of elections compiles 300-plus pages of a dossier of people doing what they believe is breaking the law. The U.S. Attorney didn’t do his job because he was distracted, looking for immigrants voting illegally. And came up with a handful of misdemeanor citations, people paying $150 fines, instead of investigating this rampant voter fraud that the board of elections had done a pretty good job of documenting.”
Their book is, in part, about what happens when the systems in place to keep a democracy working don’t function like they should.
“But there are still people who take their jobs seriously,” Ochsner said. “There are people who are still committed to keeping the systems running. And because of that, we live to have a country another day.”
With baseless claims about election fraud more numerous now than they were in 2018, both Graff and Ochsner said they hope their book will prove an antidote to the easy, seductive but ultimately false narratives around elections and how they work.
“I think our book proves there are problems with our election systems,” Graff said. “But there are enough real problems that we don’t have to make shit up.”