2018 Midterm Elections thegrio.com
(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The North Carolina political operative at the center of a ballot fraud scandal was arrested Wednesday on criminal charges over activities in the 2016 elections and the Republican primary in 2018.

The arrest of Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. came after a grand jury returned indictments alleging illegal possession of absentee ballots and obstruction of justice, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said.

Under North Carolina law, it’s illegal for anyone other than the voter or a close relative to handle a mail-in ballot.

Also charged were people Dowless is accused of paying in 2016 to collect ballots. The state elections board reported last year that Dowless tried to obstruct investigators by coaching his associates about what they should say if questioned.

Freeman said court hearings in the criminal case will be scheduled during the last week of March in a Wake County court.

Freeman also is looking into irregularities uncovered during November’s general election. Freeman said the elections board’s findings on that case are being forwarded to state criminal investigators to be reviewed in the coming weeks.

Dowless didn’t immediately respond to a message left seeking comment on his cell phone. A woman who answered the phone at his lawyer’s office hung up on a reporter.

Dowless, who was hired by Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris, was at the center of a ballot-harvesting operation during the 2016 election, according to evidence presented at a special state board of elections hearing.

According to findings detailed at the hearing, Dowless conducted an illegal “ballot harvesting” operation in which he and his assistants gathered up absentee ballots from voters by offering to put them in the mail.

Dowless’ workers in rural Bladen County testified that they were directed to collect blank or incomplete ballots, forge signatures on them and even fill in votes for local candidates.

The board has ordered a new election for the 9th Congressional District but hasn’t set a date.

Harris had led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in the district stretching from Charlotte through several counties to the east, but the state refused to certify the win after allegations of ballot fraud began to emerge.

McCready has confirmed that he will run again, and several Republicans have expressed interest.