Absentee-ballot fraud scandal speaks to wider issue of racism in North Carolina

The state elections board will not certify results in the ninth congressional race after reports of ‘ballot harvesters’ emerged

One night last October, Jerry Ward, 49, was gathered with about a dozen other people at a relative’s house in downtown Bladenboro, a small city of just 1,700 souls in rural North Carolina. Then a young, white woman came to the door, asking about getting people inside to vote early in the upcoming and fiercely contested midterm elections.

“It was a whole house full of us and the girl came after dark and she was like saying that we could vote early and we was about to fill in them papers but we didn’t. She said, ‘I’ll fill them out for you’,” said Ward who, like the other voters quoted in this story, is African American.

The comment raised suspicions among those gathered, not least because in North Carolina, like much of the rural south, memories still linger about the fight for voting rights for black residents – and the equally fierce fight to resist them.

The group decided not to accept the woman’s offer. In the end, Ward voted in person. So did everyone else in the house that night.

They were right to be suspicious. After election day, which saw a narrow win for the Republican candidate, the North Carolina state board of elections announced it would not certify the results in the ninth congressional district in which Bladenboro sits. Within days, it emerged “ballot harvesters” had been hired by a veteran political operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, to pick up absentee ballots in Bladen county, the local news station WSOC-TV reported. Some of those ballots never turned up.

It emerged Dowless worked for the Republican candidate, Mark Harris, who beat his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, by just 905 votes. Shortly after, McCready recanted his concession of the contest.

Mark Harris
Mark Harris. Photograph: Chuck Burton/AP

In an interview with WSOC-TV, one of the women involved in picking up ballots said Dowless “paid her $75 to $100 a week to go around and pick up finished absentee ballots”.

An analysis by the News & Observer found that the ballots of minority voters went unreturned to counting stations at a disproportionate rate. More than four out of 10 ballots requested by African Americans did not make it back to election officials, the analysis showed. That number jumps to more than 60% for Native American voters. In comparison, white voters’ ballots non-return rate was just 17%.

The news from Bladenboro and other towns in the district has sent shock waves throughout the country. Usually fights over voter suppression involve complex arguments over voter ID laws, how to register street addresses or disenfranchising felons. But the apparently brazen “harvesting” of ballots which then disappear without being counted has stunned many in the district and left them shaken.

Ward’s neighbor, Judy Willis, is upset about someone potentially trying to cancel votes. “It’s like you’re not a person any more,” she began, adding: “Some people have no conscience.” She is clearly rattled. “Stealing a vote? That means I can’t trust you to go and get a glass of water out of my kitchen.”

In the Ward’s house, family members have come to a consensus there should be another election. The state board of elections says an “investigation into claims of absentee voting irregularities is ongoing”, according to a press release on its website.

“They’ve been doing this for years,” says Bladenboro resident Tiajuana Mock, 63, of the absentee-ballot controversy. “There are race issues here, definitely.”
‘They’ve been doing this for years,’ says Bladenboro resident Tiajuana Mock, 63, of the absentee-ballot controversy. ‘There are race issues here, definitely.’ Photograph: Khushbu Shah/The Guardian

“They’ve been doing this for years,” said Ward’s sister-in-law Tiajuana Mock, 63, as she walked into the kitchen and made a cup of coffee. “I’m not surprised this happened in Bladenboro, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened anywhere. There are race issues here, definitely. People give you a look if you go into some of these restaurants where only white people work.”

A few streets over, Jeneva Legions, 30, stood outside her apartment door draped in a “Happy Holidays” sash at the Village Oaks Apartments, cigarette in hand. She said two women came by, a couple of days after she got her absentee ballot, instructed her on filling it out. A little while later, one of them returned and said they’d take care of it for her.

“This is the first time I did [absentee voting] and next thing I know, someone came by and said they could pick it up. She said, ‘Just don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it.’”

In North Carolina, according to the state board of elections’ website, “Only the voter or the voter’s near relative (spouse, brother, sister, parent, grandparent, child, grandchild, mother-in-law, father-in-law, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, stepparent, stepchild or qualified legal guardian) may deliver an absentee ballot in person.”

Legions’s ballot, according to the state’s voter lookup website, was not returned to be counted.

“This was my first time using an absentee ballot. Now I know to just go in and do it myself,” she said.

Her neighbor, Jessica Locklear, 26, was at a friend’s apartment, when a woman came up to the door at the neighboring apartment complex in the afternoon. The woman told her friend she’d be happy to take her ballot back for her, but that made the friend uncomfortable. In the end, when the woman came back, her friend told her she had ripped up the ballot and would go vote in person. Locklear watched her rip up the ballot.

“There’s too much weird stuff going on around here,” she said.

That’s the way the world operates, Mock said, back across town. The ballot fraud and the resulting investigation is just one part of the bigger racism issue going on in town, she added.

“They’re trying to get rid of us,” Mock said, referring to the disappearing absentee ballots. “But where are we going? We’re American.”


Khushbu Shah in Bladenboro, North Carolina

The GuardianTramp

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