Elec­tion fraud is­sues not new in Bladen, Robe­son

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY BRUCE HEN­DER­SON AND WILL DO­RAN bhen­der­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com wdo­[email protected]­sob­server.com

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 roug­hand-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.”

‘‘ IT’S A BLACK EYE FOR THE RE­SPECTABLE PEO­PLE OF BLADEN COUNTY. Res­i­dent Robert Hester, on the elec­tion fraud in­ves­ti­ga­tion

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.”

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.

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 with 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 Bladen-On­line.

“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 threeto-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.”

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 high­est­paid 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-thevote 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.

JOHN D. SIM­MONS jsim­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Ray Britt, a Bladen County com­mis­sioner, 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.”

JOHN D. SIM­MONS jsim­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

In El­iz­a­beth­town, the seat of Bladen County, res­i­dents say there has long been sus­pi­cion about close elec­tions. The State Board of Elec­tions cur­rently is in­ves­ti­gat­ing ab­sen­tee bal­lot prac­tices in both Bladen and Robe­son coun­ties.

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