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Bladen, Robeson Had 3,400 Absentee Ballots That Weren't Returned. What Happened To Them?

Erik (HASH) Hersman
In the 9th District Congressional Race, Bladen and Robeson counties had the highest rates of nonreturned absentee ballots in the state.

In the still un-certified 9th Congressional District race, Bladen and Robeson counties had the two highest rate of unreturned absentee mail-in ballots.

Bladen and Robeson also stand out statewide, according to an analysis by Catawba College political science professor Michal Bitzer.

He found there were about 19,400 absentee ballots by mail statewide that were requested but not returned for the Nov. 6 election.

Robeson had 10 percent of those statewide non-returned ballots, and Bladen County had 8 percent of the non-returned ballots. That’s 3,404 ballots.

The two counties make up less than 2 percent of the state’s population.

"The question is, what happened to those votes?"  Bitzer said.

Republican Mark Harris is leading Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes.

On Friday, the North Carolina Board of Elections voted 7-2 tan hold an evidentiary hearing on the 9th District on or before Dec. 21.

In addition to agreeing to hold the hearing, the board voted not to certify three local races. Two of those are in Bladen County, and one was a judicial race in Robeson County — signs that the state is looking at fraud in both counties.

Two of the four Republican members on the board — Ken Raymond and John Hemphill — voted no. The other two Republicans on the board, Stacy “Four” Eggers and John Lewis, voted with the Democrats.

On Tuesday, the board had voted 9-0 to not certify the race, pending Friday's meeting. Board members met by teleconference for three hours Friday.

Bladen County has a history of both political parties trying to get people to vote absentee by mail.

In the Nov. 6 election, 7.5 percent of all Bladen County ballots cast were by absentee by mail, which is the highest in the 9th Congressional district.

In the May Republican primary between Mark Harris and Robert Pittenger, 22 percent of all ballots cast were absentee by mail. That was by far the highest percentage in the district, and Harris won 96 percent of those votes.

Bitzer said it’s also unusual that there were so many non-returned ballots.

Gerry Cohen, a elections expert in the state, said when people go to the trouble of requesting an absentee ballot, they usually return them.

“The return rate is usually about 80 or 90 percent,” he said.

In a letter to the board of elections Thursday, the North Carolina Democratic Party included affidavits from five people who alleged wrongdoing in the Nov. 6 election.

Three of those affidavits focused on how their absentee ballots were handled.

In one affidavit, Datesha Montgomery said a woman came to her and asked for her absentee ballot.

Montgomery said the woman told her she was "collecting people's ballots in the area." Montgomery says she filled in two names on the ballot, for sheriff and board of education. Montgomery also said the woman told her "the others were not important" and that when she gave the woman the ballot, the woman said "she would finish it herself."

"I signed the ballot and she left," Montgomery wrote. "It was not sealed at the time."

Another woman, Lucy Young, said she received an absentee ballot by mail but had not requested one.

Unless a voter is disabled, it's against the law for a third party to collect absentee ballots by mail from voters.

In another affidavit, Emma Shipman said a woman came to her and said she was collecting absentee ballots.

"I filled out the ballot while she waited outside and gave it to her when she came back," Shipman said. "She took the ballot and put it in an envelope and never sealed it or asked me to sign it. Then she left. Because of the way she presented herself, I thought she was legitimate."

It’s illegal for a third party to collect, or “harvest,” absentee ballots. The voter is supposed to be responsible for mailing their own ballot or returning it to the board of elections.

It’s unknown what happened to the ballots that weren’t returned.

Bitzer said investigators with the state board of elections are likely trying to find out if voters simply decided they didn't want to vote or if someone collected the ballots and disposed of them. 

Bobby Ludlum, the chairman of the Bladen County Board of Elections, said the state board of elections’ chief investigator, Joan Fleming, seized absentee ballot request forms and return envelopes in the days after the election.

A Robeson County official told the Washington Post that it was unusual that his county had so many unreturned absentee ballots, and that the state board of elections had asked them for absentee ballot request forms.

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.