The election fraud investigation delaying certification of a North Carolina House race has grassroots consultants calling for higher standards in their sector of the industry.
“This space has a Wild West aspect to it—it’s semi-lawless,” said Chris Turner, who heads Stampede Consulting, a GOP grassroots shop. “There’s no inherent bias toward always being on the right side of the bright line.”
The ongoing state investigation is centered on the absentee ballot collections effort on behalf of Republican House candidate Mark Harris’ campaign by Leslie McCrae Dowless, a local operative subcontracted by Red Dome Group, a GOP consulting firm based in Charlotte.
Dowless is a known entity in local politics who approaches campaigns to offer his services. He was willing to work for a rate that a national operative wouldn’t accept. Once he was hired by Red Dome, he was classified as an “independent contractor.”
Turner said that’s part of the problem. When grassroots workers are classified as 1099 contractors, the employer is effectively promoting a culture of rule-breaking.
While he noted he doesn’t have specific knowledge of this campaign’s practices, Turner framed the issue more broadly: “For instance, some firms categorize field staff as 1099 contractors as opposed to W2s. Or they hire out the staffing component of a job to temp labor agencies that in many cases advertise their willingness to 1099 people as a cost saving to the customer.
“Using 1099s allows them to avoid paperwork and expense related to doing the correct things. It also allows them to avoid paying payroll taxes. It's convenient for them, but it's illegal. If the IRS or the Department of Labor ever looked into what they were doing, there'd be a problem."
He added: “This is the issue that's more prominent on the right for sure.”
Moreover, Turner said that Dowless should have been more heavily vetted, which means checking with previous employers—something that’s not always easy to do.
During the midterms, he said, “in the final 60 days, you’re getting lots of customers calling so you’re internalizing a lot of people. What we tried to do is adopt tactics from the private sector: scan through social media profiles, criminal background check, call an employer."
The employer reference check is the hardest to complete, said Turner.
“We couldn’t get 100 percent of people to check that box. We probably got to 85 percent and we just ran out of time. That’s the one that really allows you to weed out problematic individuals.”
According to the Charlotte Observer, Dowless was known for his ability to get out absentee votes and has worked for at least nine candidates over 20 years. Part of the investigation is centered around whether Dowless and his team collected uncompleted and unsealed absentee ballots and possibly diverted them.
The public attention has also brought to light Dowless’ past felony convictions. In 1992, he was convicted of felony fraud for a life-insurance scam. Moreover, the 62-year-old operative was convicted of felony perjury in 1990.
Reed Millar, a Democratic grassroots consultant, said those convictions are just part of the problem. “Even if a background check didn’t go back 25 years, the larger issue here is oversight,” he said. “In large operations, it’s not uncommon to have someone whose entire job is validating the work done in the field.”
Millar noted that its incumbent on the firm hiring staff for an absentee ballot program to conduct proper training and maintain oversight.
“A competent campaign would know of his conviction when deciding to hire [him] and discussing the program they would run,” Millar said. “You don’t want every conviction without context to deny people participation and employment. But you also can’t put people with fraud convictions in charge of handling important documents and running programs that could deny voters their rights.”
Andy Yates, founder of Red Dome, didn’t directly respond to a request for comment from C&E. But in statements and interviews with the Washington Post and Charlotte Observer, he painted a picture of a subcontractor working independent of the campaign while providing assurances of propriety.
Yates told the Post that Harris, his client, “was aware of Red Dome’s relationship with Mr. Dowless and believes like I do that Mr. Dowless operated within the bounds of the law.”
He added that Dowless assured him he was not illegally collecting ballots. “To be clear, I instructed Mr. Dowless on a number of occasions that neither he nor anyone working with him or volunteering with him could collect ballots.”
Dowless denied wrongdoing to the Observer.
Meanwhile, Turner said it’s incumbent upon campaign decision makers to insist on higher standards for their field operations. “Leaders with multi-million dollar checkbooks have to say, 'We’re not going to tolerate this.’ If they don't, it’s not going to change.”