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In Harris-Pittenger Race, 'Unusual' Bladen County Absentee Mail Votes Poured In For Harris

In the GOP primary in May for the 9th Congressional District, Mark Harris (left) won almost all of the absentee by mail ballots cast in Bladen County.

UPDATED: 9:45 a.m.

An investigator for the N.C. Board of Elections seized absentee-by-mail ballot requests from Bladen County shortly after the Nov. 6 election as part of its scrutiny of Mark Harris' win over Dan McCready in the 9th district congressional race.

But an elections law expert says Bladen County's results for the 9th district GOP primary also deserve attention, calling them “unusual."

In May, Harris narrowly upset incumbent Robert Pittenger in the Republican primary by 828 votes. 

Harris' win was powered, in part, by a surge of absentee-by-mail ballots from Bladen County, according to data from the N.C. Board of Elections. In the May primary, 22 percent of the votes cast in Bladen County in the Harris-Pittenger race were cast by absentee-by-mail, and Harris was the overwhelming winner of those ballots.

Harris won 96 percent of the 456 absentee-by-mail votes in Bladen, but won only 62 percent of all other votes in the county, according to state Board of Elections records. 

Gerry Cohen, an elections law expert who was a state legislative attorney for more than 30 years, said the absentee-by-mail votes from Bladen are "unusual."

"Clearly there is something going on in Bladen County," he said. "It's the only county in the state with an organized, street-level vote-by-mail operation. And there is nothing necessarily wrong with that."

He said it's not illegal to help people request absentee by mail ballots, but someone can't collect the ballots, a process known as harvesting.

At 22 percent, Bladen County easily had the highest percentage of absentee-by-mail ballots in the district. Mecklenburg County was the next highest at only 1.6 percent.

Here are the percentages from the other counties in the 9th Congressional District: Union (.07 percent); Anson (0 percent); Scotland (1.5 percent); Robeson (1.1 percent); Cumberland (.08 percent); Richmond (.02 percent).

After reviewing the data, Cohen said there were a large number of absentee-by-mail ballots in the primary that were requested but never returned. Cohen says one possibility is that a third party promised to mail them for voters but failed to do so.

During the N.C. Board of Elections meeting Tuesday, board member Joshua Malcolm dropped a bombshell before the nine-member board went into closed session.

“I’m very familiar with the unfortunate activities that have happened in my part of the state," Malcolm said during the meeting. "And I am not going to turn a blind eye to what took place to the best of my understanding, which has been ongoing for a number of years, and which has been repeatedly referred to the United States attorney and the district attorneys to clean up. Those things have not taken place.”

The bi-partisan board then voted 9-0 not to certify the results from the 9th District. In doing so, the board cited a state statute that allows the board to take any action to ensure that an election is determined "without taint of fraud or corruption and without irregularities” that may have changed the results of an election.

On Wednesday, Bobby Ludlum, chair of the Bladen County Board of Elections, told WFAE that the state board's chief investigator, Joan Fleming, came to Elizabethtown to get absentee by mail ballot requests and return envelopes during the week of the election.

Two years ago, Bladen County resident McCrae Dowless alleged that there was a "massive scheme to run an absentee ballot mill involving hundreds of ballots." Dowless' allegations focused on a small race he won for the county's Soil and Water Conservation District, but it received statewide attention because it was the same election as the close race for governor between Cooper and McCrory.

In his complaint, he alleged that a Democratic-leaning group had improperly filled out absentee by mail ballots, and McCrory had seized upon the allegation.

In 2018, the state board appears to be focused on an effort to help the Republican candidate.

Robeson County is also in the 9th Distric. Steve Stone, the chair of Robeson's Board of Elections, told the Washington Post that the state has asked for information about its asbentee ballot requests. He told the newspaper that people were going door to door in Robeson, asking people to request absentee ballots.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.