Politics & Government

Bladen counted early votes too soon in 2018. Witness alleges numbers were leaked.

Rough politics, and a black eye for North Carolina’s Mother County

Investigators want to learn whether political operators illegally harvested absentee ballots in Bladen and neighboring Robeson County, leading to a fraud investigation that has the 9th District congressional race in limbo.
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Investigators want to learn whether political operators illegally harvested absentee ballots in Bladen and neighboring Robeson County, leading to a fraud investigation that has the 9th District congressional race in limbo.

Bladen County election workers tallied the results of early voting before Election Day in violation of state rules and are accused of allowing outsiders to view them, a precinct worker wrote in an affidavit released by state Democrats.

The allegations raise new questions about missteps in an election fraud case in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District race that has garnered national attention and held up certification of the U.S. House contest.

The report showing totals from Bladen County’s only early voting location was run on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018 from 1:44 p.m. to 1:46 p.m., according to a copy released by the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, which is investigating voting irregularities among mail-in absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties.

Due to the investigation, the board has refused to certify the results of the election between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready. The board plans to hold an evidentiary hearing before Dec. 21, but no date or location has been announced.

Under North Carolina election law, “if one-stop ballots ... are counted electronically, that count shall commence at the time the polls close.” Polls closed in North Carolina on Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. “One-stop voting,” which is what early voting is called in North Carolina, ended on Nov. 3, according to the state board. A 2016 memo from the state board reinforced those policies.

“Recent events have highlighted the need to ensure that the critical responsibilities of canvassing an election are as uniform across the state as our polling place procedures, wrote Kim Strach, the executive director of the state board to county boards of elections in a June 7, 2016 memo.

A section of the nine-page memo is headlined: “Counting of Absentee Ballots on Election Day.”

But the procedures laid out in the memo were not followed in Bladen County in 2018, according to documents released by the state board and an affidavit signed by a precinct worker.

“On Saturday, 11/3/18, the last day of early voting, the ‘tape’ showing election results at the one-stop polling site was run after the polls closed, and was viewed by officials at the one-stop site who were not judges. It is my understanding that this was improper,” precinct worker Agnes Willis wrote in a affidavit dated Nov. 29.

Willis was one of three witnesses who signed the early vote results, certifying that it was an accurate count. Valeria Peacock McKoy, the interim director of the Bladen County Board of Elections, confirmed that Willis was a precinct worker during the election.

McKoy said she was not aware of votes being counted early or being seen by outside people.

“I don’t know anything about that,” she told The News & Observer on Friday.

Willis is registered as a Democrat, according to state voting records. She has voted in Democratic primaries in North Carolina since registering in 2008. Willis voted early in the 2018 election.

McCready mentioned the affidavit and the possibility of “leaked” early voting numbers during a Monday morning appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“The Bladen County Board of Elections may have leaked early vote information to people who weren’t supposed to see it,” McCready said. “That’s information that is strategic to a campaign, that is an important factor in how a campaign spends resources, all that sort of thing.”

The early vote total shows 2,471 votes for Harris, 1,908 votes for McCready and 53 votes for Libertarian candidate Jeff Scott.

In all, Harris won 5,413 votes in Bladen County, while McCready won 3,856. Scott took 129 votes.

That kind of data — how many votes each candidates had banked in early voting — would be valuable to campaigns seeking late-minute information or operatives collecting mail-in absentee ballots, especially if only one side had the information. Voters in the counties allege that strangers, some working for McCrae Dowless, who was paid by the Harris campaign through a consulting firm, collected ballots from them at their homes.

Dowless, 62, has been identified as a person of interest by the state board in its investigation.

The McCready campaign said in a text message that no one associated with the campaign saw early vote totals from Bladen County before Election Day. Attempts to contact the Harris campaign were unsuccessful.

Willis also wrote that the number of absentee ballots from a specific precinct concerned her.

“Also, after the election, as part of my duties as an assistant, I fed ballots into the vote tabulation machines. The absentee mail-in ballots were distinctive due to the folding creases and wear and tear present on the ballots, as well as coding written on the ballots. I noticed a very large number of ballots from the Bethel precinct,” Willis wrote in her affidavit.

Multiple attempts to contact Willis and Mitch Edwards, another precinct worker who signed the vote tally, were unsuccessful.

The affidavit was one of several turned into the state board by the North Carolina Democratic Party.

Follow more of our reporting on The North Carolina election fraud investigation

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.
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