North Carolina’s ‘Guru of Elections’: Can-Do Operator Who May Have Done Too Much

“They were around, saying they would help people cast absentee ballots,” said Barbie Silvas, who mailed in a ballot this year. “They said, ‘I’m here for McCrae to help people to vote.’”

Mr. Dowless appeared in the news in the early 1990s after he was accused of taking out, and collecting on, a life insurance policy on an employee who had just died, backdating it and forging a signature. He ultimately spent about six months in prison, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.

Less than two decades later, he was one of a handful of get-out-the-vote experts who wielded significant influence in Bladen County, a struggling rural area where one in four people live below the poverty line. Records show that beginning in 2009, at least seven Democratic and Republican candidates paid him for work.

In 2010, Mr. Dowless worked for a Democratic candidate for district attorney. A local television station at that time named Mr. Dowless as one of “a few heavy hitters in the Bladen County get-out-the-vote arena.” Part of the local political culture, the station reported, involved political operatives distributing sample ballots for which they had sold spots to the highest-bidding candidates.

The Republican candidate, Jonathan M. David, eventually won the election. He criticized the pay-to-play tactics, which he said “lets a small group of people who don’t have the best interest of the community at heart, but their own financial interest at stake, to dictate who becomes important leaders in their community.”

That same year produced a political landmark for Bladen County, which elected a Democrat as its first black sheriff.

The racial backlash — the county was then 56 percent white and 35 percent black — was palpable, recalled Patsy Sheppard, now a vice chairwoman of the local Democratic Party. She recalled hearing her fellow whites say, “We need a white sheriff.”