Before anyone knew much about what went wrong with Bladen County’s absentee ballots during the 2018 congressional election, one thing was clear: McCrae Dowless had something to do with it.
Dowless was a soft-spoken chain smoker who cut a slim figure with sandy gray hair and a trimmed beard. His hooded, puppy dog eyes starred somberly from news feeds as allegations of election tampering in North Carolina consumed the national media.
The ex-con had become deeply ingrained in Bladen County politics over the last decade as a savvy political operative. Dowless had worked on Republican Todd Johnson’s 2016 congressional run, where, despite failing to secure a primary victory, Johnson raked in a majority of absentee votes. This caught the attention of Mark Harris, a local pastor and proto-typical right-wing candidate in the majority-white district, who enlisted Dowless’s support in his 2018 congressional run.
Dowless was the kind of guy who knew everyone in Bladen. He was charismatic, polite, and skilled in the art of getting people to do what he wanted.
In the movie version, Dowless would be played by Edward Norton, reporter Zoe Chace says.
But in Chace’s version of the story, a five-part podcast from the makers of Serial premiering this week, Dowless is an enigma. In the year-plus she spent reporting the story on the ground in Bladen, Dowless never agreed to an interview with Chace, only tempting her in his quiet, Southern drawl with hushed “off the records” she couldn’t use.
“McCrae, he’s cinematic,” Chace said last week during an interview with the INDY. “He’s sort of a ghost that haunts the story of the podcast.”
Instead, “The Improvement Association,” a joint venture between Serial Productions and The New York Times which premiered Tuesday on streaming platforms, tells a more complicated story than what played out before the public eye, bringing to the light a deep-seated political rivalry.
In the first episode, we learn that the Improvement Association is actually a local political PAC of Black Democrats struggling to gain power in the district. In 2010, the PAC’s leader, Horace Munn, had a stroke of genius that coincidentally would become the prominent political strategy in 2020’s presidential election: using absentee ballots to drive Democratic voter turnout in the county sheriff’s race.
It worked. That year, by just 300 votes, the mostly-white Bladen County elected its first Black sheriff, Prentis Benston. And that’s where the story really begins, Chace says: with a bunch of white people pissed off that Black voters had put a Black man in charge.
Six years later, Dowless, who had recently been elected the district’s soil and water supervisor, would issue a protest to the N.C. Board of Elections alleging the Democratic party had engaged in fraud by concocting “a blatant scheme to try to impact the voting results of an entire county and perhaps even sway statewide and federal election,” using absentee ballots.
Republican Governor Pat McCory, who had just lost to Democrat Roy Cooper, was quick to jump on the election fraud bandwagon but the complaint was dismissed, “citing a lack of substantial evidence of a violation of election law or other irregularity or misconduct sufficient to cast doubt on the results of the election,” according to a State Board of Elections statement.
Two years later, in 2018, the board would find evidence of election fraud–from Dowless. In a historic move, the board refused to certify Harris’s congressional win and called for a new election in early 2019. Dowless was later indicted for ballot tampering, perjury, solicitation, and obstruction of justice.
Dowless’s strategy was an unlawful mutation of Munn’s 2010 strategy: employing a team of unwitting or willfully ignorant co-conspirators, including the daughter of his ex-wife, Dowless facilitated the forgery of signatures with different colored pens on real ballots he had collected and hoarded in his home.
Dowless is currently awaiting trial.
But Dowless isn’t the story here; at least, not the whole story.
When Chace received a phone call from Horace Munn following the 2018 election blowout, news articles plastering Dowless’s face were speckling her newsfeed. She’d interviewed Munn in 2016 when reporting for This American Life on Republicans’ rabid appetite for allegations of voter fraud that year, which led her to Bladen.
Republicans had been insinuating widespread voter fraud for years as a way to dispute losses and facilitate the passage of restrictive voting laws that the courts have since ruled “target African American voters with almost surgical precision.” In 2016, state GOP executive director Dallas Woodhouse thought he’d found the smoking gun in Bladen–a series of ballots that appeared to have been filled out by the same person.
Woodhouse was right, but only partly. Volunteers from the Bladen County Improvement Association PAC had helped voters fill out their absentee ballots. But technically, it wasn’t illegal–they weren’t bribing voters, nor were they filling out the ballots without their permission.
So when Munn called Chace again in 2019, offering her the origin story behind the national story, she took the bait.
“The world that [Munn] painted in Bladen County was so fascinating and so rich and also took so long to unravel that that’s why I ended up telling the backstory of this election fraud scandal,” Chace says. “Also, though, you don’t see this happen to congresspeople. Election fraud does happen, but it’s usually in a local way and not for a federal race, not for a congressman. It is a big deal that it got to that point.”
Returning to Bladen in the spring of 2019, Chace found herself doing boots-on-the-ground reporting. Bladen County is rural, and in some places, the phones don’t work too well. Folks weren’t responding to texts or emails, so she had to do a lot of reporting face to face.
Sometimes it just came down to luck. When tracking down one source, a barber and friend of Dowless, Chace said she had to figure out which of two barbershops he’d be working at that day.
“There were just a lot of times that you would go chase somebody and have to chase them around a few places–calling them wasn’t necessarily going to work–and you might never find them, to be honest,” Chace says. “There would be some people I had on my list just to try and it would take 11 months to at least get an answer from their mom that they didn’t want to talk.”
“It’s kind of fun,” Chace adds, “in a way, for a reporter, ‘cause you’re just running around, but it’s harder when you can’t use your computer and your phone to do everything.”
But then COVID-19 happened. Chace recalls being in Bladen for the Democratic primary and overhearing someone worrying about the stock market because of a new virus from China. At the time, it seemed like such a random concern. But the next time she visited town, everyone was wearing masks and social distancing. Her crew used a longer microphone pole and she worried sources would be more reticent to open up.
“It’s really hard to go up to somebody’s front door and knock on their door anyway, cold,” Chace says. “And if it’s during the pandemic, it’s just worse. It’s more anxiety and you feel like the person is going to be angry at you when they open the door because it’s really obvious you’re not supposed to bust in on strangers at this moment.”
Luckily, she’d already been reporting on the story for several months by the time COVID arrived, but it would take almost another year to nail it down.
Series producer Nancy Updike praised Chace’s tenacity.
“Zoe really digs in and she got the story behind the story, and then she got the story behind the story behind the story,” Updike says. “Building it out, it didn’t feel like this is something that people will skim and think, “I already know this.” I think it’s going to feel like there’s a lot here, even for people who read about these events in real-time.”
Early on in reporting the series, Chace met with Pat Gannon, the State Board of Elections spokesperson. Gannon would help Chace track down records requests, such as emails and documents from Bladen County elections dating back ten years or more.
“She’s persistent, for sure,” Gannon says. “I haven’t heard the whole story yet so there are some things I may be surprised about when the podcast comes out…I’m eager to see what her reporting has uncovered about elections.”
Fans of Serial’s first season focusing on the Hae Min Lee murder mystery’s insular small-town drama may balk at the idea that election fraud could possibly be as compelling. But for Updike, it’s a very Serial-esque story: a character-driven slow burn where interpersonal feuds reach a boiling point.
“I don’t think it’s very different from Serial because I don’t think of Serial as a true-crime show,” Updike says. “It’s a deep dive that is full of characters who you hear a lot from and it does get at some bigger thoughts and ideas but it really is about these people and the very real stakes of what’s happening in their lives. This is an election documentary about how high the stakes are in local elections during a time when the national conversation about election fraud is playing out in its own way in this very tight community where people have known each other for decades and fight elections really hard.”
That battle included routine allegations of election fraud thrown out as a political strategy, so much so that one Board of Elections official Chace interviewed claims he visited Bladen “constantly” because there were so many accusations.
The last episode of the podcast is still under production. I asked Chace what she thinks the moral of the story is, if there is one.
“We are still writing the end,” Chace says. “Something I’ve thought about is just how sticky these [election fraud] accusations can be. In a grander sense, it does seem, despite a lot of these claims of election fraud in 2020 being disproven, there are laws being passed to combat those accusations.”
“But [in Bladen], the sticky election fraud accusations result in relationships getting hurt, result in people making choices that, maybe instead of gaining them political power, are going to set them back,” Chace continues. “There’s just a long, wandering shelf life to election fraud accusations and it’s hard to get the chance to see how they worm their way through people’s lives. But we got that chance in Bladen. I liked seeing the personal ramifications.”
As for McCrae Dowless, he didn’t want to comment for this story, either. When he answered my phone call with his congenial drawl, he seemed almost apologetic that his lawyers had advised him not to speak with reporters.
“I’m making no comment to anyone,” Dowless said, politely. “That’s what I’m doing, not disrespecting anyone. But at this time, I’m not making any comment.”
“No disrespect to anybody,” he said, once again.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that there were three seasons of Serial.
Follow Senior Staff Writer Leigh Tauss on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.
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