In 2 NC counties with ‘rough politics,’ election fraud claims are nothing new

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Bladen calls itself the mother county of North Carolina because in colonial times, it encompassed what is now more than half the state’s counties. These days it’s the mother of a growing elections fraud probe focused on the 9th District congressional race.

State Board of Elections investigators want to learn whether political operators illegally harvested absentee ballots in Bladen and neighboring Robeson County. Democrat Dan McCready, who conceded the November election because he trailed Republican Mark Harris by 905 votes, retracted his concession Thursday.

The probe is another twist in the colorful electoral histories of two rural, economically-distressed counties you might know best from driving through them on the way to the beach.

It’s at least the fifth time since 2010 that state officials have looked into Bladen County elections. District Attorney Jon David, in a January letter to the State Bureau of Investigation, wrote of the county’s “troubled history of political groups exploiting the use of absentee ballots” to skew results for their candidates.

That trouble might trickle down to the lowliest of elective offices in the county. The state elections board, in declining to certify the 9th District results on Nov. 30, also directed Bladen officials not to certify results of one close race for county commissioner and another for Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor.

The state board also directed that a District Court judgeship in Robeson County, where the Democratic candidate leads by 67 votes, not be certified.

While Robeson has a long history of political shenanigans, Bladen politics can get rough-and-tumble too, said county commissioner Ray Britt, who previously served 15 years on the county elections board.

He considers get-out-the-vote efforts focused on absentee votes a legitimate part of campaigning in a county of only 35,000 people. Whether political operators have gamed those ballots, he added, “has been a question for years.”

In Elizabethtown, the vibrant county seat, folks who didn’t want to be quoted by name say there’s long been suspicion about close elections. “To be honest, I’m glad it’s in the news because they know it’s been out there and nobody ever said anything,” said one shopkeeper.

Investigators are believed to be probing the work of Bladen County resident McCrae Dowless, who Britt said has worked on campaigns in the county for years and was investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation eight to 10 years ago.

Britt, who was then on the county’s election board, said SBI agents told him that “Dowless knew the laws very well, and worked them well, but he never went over the top,” Britt said. “He was aggressive and stayed within the law .... He has a great following of people he has helped with their elections, from judges on down.”

Other entities do similar work in the county, he added. Former Gov. Pat McCrory unsuccessfully sought an SBI probe of the Bladen County Improvement Association PAC, which the state Democratic Party had paid for elections work.

“The reason you see aggressive (campaigning) here is that people here have a lot of knowledge, their PACs, about what you can and cannot do,” Britt said. “They earn their money, so to speak.”

Ray Britt, 63, is a Elizabethtown businessman, Bladen County commissioner and former member of the county election board. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

A ‘black eye for respectable people’

Bladen is a flat landscape of farm fields and small towns on the southeastern coastal plain. A sole federal highway, U.S. 701, and the Cape Fear River bisect the county. Much of its eastern half is state gameland and lake-studded parks.

Settled by Highland Scots in 1734, according to the county’s website, its roots run deep. A Revolutionary War battleground, Tory Hole, is now a park in Elizabethtown. Elwell Ferry, one of the state’s last inland ferries, still makes its five-minute crossings of the Cape Fear to connect two crossroads towns.

The Elwell Ferry, operating since 1905, is a cable ferry crossing the Cape Fear River in Bladen County. It connects the communities of Carvers Creek and Kelly in Bladen County. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

But the county has struggled as cotton mills and sawmills closed. Its largest employer is now Smithfield Foods, which employs more than 5,000 to run the world’s largest pork processing plant in Tar Heel. A few solar farms sprout among cotton fields.

Like many counties in its corner of North Carolina, Bladen doesn’t compare well to the state at large.

About 19 percent of its families live below the poverty line, compared to the state’s 12 percent average. Fifteen percent have college degrees, half the state average. Bladen’s 4.5 percent September unemployment rate, $32,000 median household income and slightly falling population place it among North Carolina’s 40 most economically distressed counties.

Still, Bladen is a relaxed, quiet, conservative place to live, says Robert Hester, who’s lived there all his 80 years. He has owned a local radio station, served two terms as a county commissioner and worked 25 years for the state county commissioners’ association. Most recently he launched, and sold three years ago, the digital news site BladenOnline.

“It’s a black eye for the respectable people of Bladen County,” Hester said of the election fraud investigation. News coverage, he said, will only make it harder to attract the new industry the county needs.

Democrats’ power recedes

Democrats had once ruled eastern North Carolina since the turn of the 20th century. Among the party’s power brokers in the 1970s and 1980s was former House speaker and lieutenant governor Jimmy Green, who lived in the Bladen County town of Clarkton. Green was acquitted in 1983 of taking a bribe from an undercover FBI agent, but was convicted of income tax fraud in 1997. He died in 2000.

Despite what was essentially one-party rule, interest in county elections was always intense, Hester said. Candidates sometimes campaigned in festival-like events in tobacco warehouses. Crowds flocked to the Superior Court courtroom of the county courthouse to watch returns come in, sometimes staying into the wee hours of early morning.

Democrats still outnumber Republicans three-to-one, but more than a quarter of voters are independents. Bladen is hardly the Democratic stronghold it’s been in the past. As Democrats became Republicans, the tenor of politics became more partisan.

Donald Trump carried the county in 2016. The disputed results for the 9th District have Harris with 57 percent of the Bladen vote last month, to McCready’s 41 percent. Republicans are four of the nine county commissioners, and voters elected a Republican sheriff in November.

With the 9th District now stretching to Charlotte, Hester wonders whether candidates know they may be hiring local political operators “who rig the system and get away with it. I’m convinced there are others who have done it for years.”

Absentee ballots are rarely pivotal in election results, said Aaron King, an associate professor of political science at UNC Wilmington. But they’re also potentially easier to manipulate, he said, and busy voters might not understand what’s illegal.

“The priority of politicians, it’s live or die for some people. But for others, they’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get my kids to school,’ “ King said. Cheating, he added “would be very easy to do, and the extent to which it happens we don’t know.”

Robert G. Hester, 80, is a former Bladen County commissioner. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

A hotbed of corruption

Investigators are also looking into Robeson County, which has a reputation as a hotbed of government corruption. In just the last five years, three local elections have had to be canceled and re-done due to allegations of vote-buying and other types of fraud.

One former sheriff, Glenn Maynor, only recently got out of federal prison for crimes of his that were uncovered during the mid-2000s in an investigation called Operation Tarnished Badge. The Fayetteville Observer reported that one in every six sheriff’s office employees was convicted in federal court of crimes ranging from perjury to kidnapping, drug dealing and armed robbery.

Maynor had taken over from Hubert Stone, now dead, who was sheriff from 1978 to 1994. Stone’s son, Hubert Deese, was later convicted of dealing cocaine while Stone was in office.

Thomas Mills, a Democratic operative who ran for Congress from the neighboring 8th District in 2016 and has helped in some Bladen County campaigns, said he isn’t surprised that Robeson has made national news.

“It’s always been corrupt, and Bladen County’s always been corrupt,” he said. “It’s nothing new.”

After Prohibition ended in 1933, Robeson County remained a dry county, where alcohol was banned and moonshiners had steady business. “As a dry county, Robeson bootleggers were known to help finance political races,” the chairman of the local Republican Party wrote in a 2015 article. Any ‘arrests’ were dismissed with small fines. The highly political environment amounted to fines being a cost of doing business for bootleggers.”

Donnie Douglas, the longtime editor of the local newspaper, The Robesonian, said the area has many low-income, poorly educated people. Local politicians discovered they could take advantage of them.

“In Robeson County, it’s given us corruption,” he said. “A government with cronyism. Nepotism. It’s given us the highest-paid county commissioners in the state, but the second-lowest funded schools.”

Douglas said he’s long suspected election fraud was happening in Robeson County but hasn’t been able to prove it. But the absentee ballot allegations coming out of Bladen aren’t the type that raise eyebrows in Robeson. Robeson County has more frequently faced allegations of candidates paying people to vote for them, he said, or convincing them to register to vote in a town where they don’t actually live.

“I think there’s a tendency to conflate Bladen and Robeson,” Douglas said. “But that’s not the case. … They want to make it about big bad Republicans (in Bladen County), but Republicans don’t even run around here.”

The Pembroke Mafia

Allen Dial, who was a town council member in the Robeson County town of Pembroke for 16 years, said he has filed numerous complaints of voter fraud against well-connected opponents that never got investigated. Instead, he said, authorities investigated him and his supporters.

“In the past it’s been called the Pembroke Mafia, and there’s all kinds of things that’s been brought up,” Dial said. “I couldn’t be bought, so they did everything to work against me. And they still work against me in every way they can. But I can go home and sleep at night.”

In both 2013 and 2015, Dial was initially named the winner of local elections for town council and mayor — but in both cases the state threw out the results of the elections and ordered a do-over. Both times, Dial lost the second election.

Dial’s initial victory in the 2015 mayoral race was thrown out after allegations that some of his supporters couldn’t prove that they were actually town residents. Dial downplays that, saying they were simply down-on-their-luck residents who didn’t have their own place and were staying with friends or family, so they couldn’t provide things like utility bills to prove their residency.

In small towns like Pembroke, where elections often involve only a few hundred voters, every vote can make a difference.

“Almost every Pembroke election has to be re-done, it seems like,” said Douglas, the newspaper editor. “... It does make a difference when you can get eight or 10 fraudulent votes in an election that only has 200 total votes.”

Investigators aren’t talking

Despite its differences with Bladen County, there are indications that absentee ballots in Robeson County have now caught investigators’ attention.

The scope of their investigation hasn’t been revealed publicly, however. The state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement declined to make any of its investigators available to speak about the current investigation, or previous investigations into voter fraud allegations in the area. The investigator at the Robeson County District Attorney’s office, Erich Hackney, did not return requests for comment.

One statistic from the 2018 election pops out: Of the 3,405 people in the eight-county 9th District who requested an absentee ballot but never submitted one, one in four — 822 voters — was a Democrat from Robeson County.

It’s unclear whether that was the result of a plot to steal Democratic voters’ ballots or the result of a Democratic get-out-the-vote effort that fizzled when people decided not to actually vote.

The chairman of the Robeson County Board of Elections, Steve Stone, previously told the News & Observer that he had raised concerns with the state after noticing political operatives drop off large boxes of requests for voter registrations or absentee ballots.

Destroying mail-in ballots would break the law, and so would someone taking another person’s ballot to fill in on their own. Simply requesting mail-in ballots for others is not illegal.

According to Robeson election records, an operative from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dropped off one box of requests on Oct. 8 and another on Oct. 10, totaling 603 voter registration or absentee ballot request forms, less than a month before the election.

A DCCC representative whose business card was left at the county election board office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Another DCCC representative also declined several times to speak on the record about the committee’s efforts in Robeson County.

Sylvester Jones, a 64-year-old resident of St. Pauls who’s a registered Democrat, said two people came to his house before the election to tell him to re-register “just to be sure,” even though his paperwork was in order as far as he knew. They also told him he might have trouble getting to the polls, because he’s disabled, and suggested he apply to vote absentee.

Jones said he made the absentee request, filled out the ballot and mailed it himself. But he remains confused about the process. A month after the election, he wonders whether his ballot was ever counted.

Bladen County is a rural county with a number of poor people. A trailer parks sits next to a Bladen county water tower on NC Hwy 242 near Bladenboro, NC. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Staff writer Josh Shaffer contributed.

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