Leslie McRae Dowless, the political operative at the heart of potential absentee mail-in ballot misconduct in Bladen County, is a person of interest in the 9th Congressional District investigation, the Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has confirmed.

The investigation “is the top priority” of the state elections board, according to a news release it issued Friday, Dec. 7, a day after a group of Republican senators criticized lax enforcement and slow investigations into years of apparent absentee ballot mischief.

The senators called for Gov. Roy Cooper to create a bipartisan task force to handle a swift and impartial investigation. Cooper has failed to respond to requests for comment.

Republican Mark Harris beat Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in the congressional race. His large lead in absentee mail-in ballots raised concerns about possible election tampering.

“Four State Board investigators with law enforcement experience are working full-time on this matter. They are led by Chief Investigator Joan Fleming, who specialized in fraud investigations during her 26-year tenure as an FBI special agent,” the news release said. “Numerous State Board employees are assisting from Raleigh.”

The State Board has issued subpoenas for documents to Red Dome Group, the Mark Harris for Congress Committee, and the James Atlas McVicker Committee.

Red Dome Group is the political consulting firm founded by Andy Yates, Harris’ chief campaign strategist. The Harris campaign paid Red Dome slightly more than $429,360 from Aug. 1, 2017, to Oct. 17, Federal Election Commission campaign finance reports show. McVicker is the Bladen County sheriff re-elected Nov. 6.

A public evidentiary hearing will be scheduled “as soon as possible,” the news release said. The elections board previously said it would hold a hearing by Dec. 21. But there could be a race against time — a  court order said it must cease operations by Dec. 12 because its structure is unconstitutional. How it would be reorganized remains in question.

Meanwhile, Harris said via video posted to his Twitter account he and his campaign “are cooperating fully” with investigators, and “I was absolutely unaware of any wrongdoing.”

“If this investigation finds proof of illegal activity on either side to such a level that it could have changed the outcome of the election then I would wholeheartedly support a new election to ensure all voters have confidence in the results,” Harris said.

McCready withdrew his concession Thursday as evidence of election tampering grew. He voiced his concern through Twitter and media interviews.

“I didn’t serve overseas in the Marine Corps just to come back home and watch politicians and career criminals attack our democracy,” McCready said. He called on Harris to break his silence and tell what he knew and when.

The elections board is publicly posting documents from Bladen and Robeson counties related to the 9th Congressional District contest to an online portal.

Until recently, statewide and national attention focused on Dowless, and the so-called ballot harvesting his crew conducted under contract with Red Dome Group. But Republicans and news outlets are now reporting that the Bladen County Improvement Association, a Democratic-funded organization aiding Democratic candidates, used the same tactics in this year’s 9th Congressional District contest, and in prior election cycles.

That unlawful activity involves third-party individuals ordering, filling out, or submitting absentee mail-in ballots for voters. Only voters, near family members, or legal guardians can perform those functions legally. There is suspicion third-party ballot collectors, rather than voters assigned the ballots, could be filling them out for the candidate on whose campaign they are working, and are not turning in ballots the voters filled in for the opposing candidate.

At Thursday’s news conference, the Republican senators said allegations about Bladen County absentee mail-in ballot skullduggery have been made since at least 2010. Both Democrats and Republicans might have benefited, and the practice was widely known. They pointed to huge statistical discrepancies in voting patterns as cause for alarm.

Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, said in the 2014 U.S. Senate race, for example, incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan won the absentee mail-in vote in Bladen County by 74 percent to 26 percent for Republican challenger and eventual winner Thom Tillis. She got 668 absentee votes in Bladen County, but only 525 in Cumberland County, which is 10 times larger.

In 2016, then Gov. Pat McCrory won Bladen County by almost 7 percent of the vote. Yet Cooper had a 30 percent advantage in absentee by-mail ballots, Bishop said.

That race, in particular, is why the senators called on Cooper to remove investigatory authority from the elections board and shift it to a bipartisan task force. They said elections board Democratic member Joshua Malcolm made the motion in 2016 to reject McCrory’s challenge of those unusual results, and to certify Cooper’s win.

Yet in a mirror image election this year, Malcolm made the motion to reject certification of Harris’ win because of the absentee mail-in vote anomaly. The elections board voted twice, 9-0 and 7-2, not to certify.

“It doesn’t mean it’s the wrong approach,” Bishop said, admitting he would not certify the Harris election either.

But Malcolm’s flip from one election cycle to the next erodes public confidence in the elections board’s neutrality, and the integrity of the electoral system, Bishop and the other senators said. That is compounded by Democrat Andy Penry’s resignation as elections board chairman after his disparaging social media comments about Republicans surfaced. Malcolm was named chairman in Penry’s place.

In an apparent move to defend its actions, the elections board said in Friday’s release it investigated 2016 absentee voting issues in Bladen County and held a public hearing (Transcript here.) Three Republicans and two Democrats voted unanimously to forward all information about the Bladen County irregularities to federal and state prosecutors.

Elections board investigators turned over detailed reports to prosecutors documenting issues raised during the hearing, and information its investigations uncovered.

Due to concerns raised about fresh criminal absentee ballot activity, and to prevent election fraud, in late October and early November the elections board mailed letters to about 2,000 Bladen County voters who asked for general election absentee ballots. The letters explained the process, and voting rights, and included a hotline number to call if anyone tried to take their ballots or fill them in.

Ten calls were received, and investigators are looking into the circumstances.