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NC Elections Investigators Return To Robeson Where Democrats Encouraged Voting By Mail

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The NC Board of Elections returned to Robeson County Monday.

While Republican operatives in Bladen County pushed people to vote for Mark Harris with absentee by mail ballots, the North Carolina Democratic Party was running an aggressive absentee-by-mail ballot effort in neighboring Robeson County.

Organizers dropped off so many voter registration forms and absentee ballot requests that they “overwhelmed” elections officials in Lumberton, according to Steve Stone, the chair of the Robeson Board of Elections.

“It’s totally out of character from what I’ve seen in the previous elections, as far as the volume of registration forms and absentee requests that come in in bulk by one individual,” Stone said.

That effort has attracted the attention of the North Carolina Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

Stone said the state elections board came to Robeson last Wednesday to collect absentee ballot request forms and return envelopes – similar to what investigators seized in Bladen County after the Nov. 6 election. He said investigators came back Monday for more information, including business cards from operatives who were working on the ground. He said one of the business cards was from someone who worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

The state board of elections said it will post some documents related to its fraud investigation on its website starting Tuesday afternoon.

Stone said the first batches of registrations and absentee mail requests to Robeson came in groups of 15 or 20 over the summer. He said that wasn’t a problem.

“Then you started getting 50 or 75 or more, from one person, coming in,” Stone said.

He said one problem was that people who were already registered to vote were filling out new voter applications forms, possibly because they were confused. The elections office also got complaints from voters who asked why they were being asked to register for a second time.

The paperwork – and complaints – created delays, Stone said.

In Robeson, 443 absentee mail requests arrived at the elections office in September. It took, on average, more than 28 days for the elections office to place a ballot in the mail, according to a WFAE analysis of state election data.

By contrast, Mecklenburg County only took about four days, on average, to send an absentee ballot in the mail in September.

Last Friday, the state board declined for the second time in a week to certify the results of the 9th Congressional District race between Harris and Democrat Dan McCready. The board also declined to certify two local races in Bladen and one in Robeson counties.

Both counties had an unusually high number of people who voted absentee by mail, along with absentee ballots that were never returned or mailed back.

In Bladen County, most of the absentee mail requests were from Republican or unaffiliated voters. That’s where McCrae Dowless – a political consultant – was working for a group that was working with a Harris campaign consultant. Dowless was convicted of felony fraud in 1992.

In Robeson, almost all requests for absentee mail ballots were from registered Democrats. Of the 2,433 absentee by mail ballot requests for the Nov. 6 election in Robeson, only 205 came from Republicans – less than 9 percent.

Democrats requested 68 percent of the absentee by mail ballots in Robeson.

A Democratic official said the North Carolina Democratic Party had a “standard” effort in Robeson to get some people to vote absentee by mail.

In North Carolina, it is OK to go door-to-door and encourage people to vote by mail, as operatives did in Bladen and Robeson. It’s illegal to collect ballots from people, a process known as “harvesting.”

In Bladen, voters told WFAE that people supporting Harris repeatedly came to their doors, asking if they could take their ballots. One voter in Bladenboro, a small town where Dowless lives, said she gave her ballot to someone who had said she should vote for Harris.

One woman told WSOC-TV Monday that Dowless paid her money to collect absentee ballots.

There has been no evidence of similar “harvesting” in Robeson.

In fact, Robeson had the highest percentage of unreturned absentee ballots in the state. Only a handful of those unreturned ballots – 6 percent – were from Republicans.

The state board has said it will hold a public hearing on the fraud allegations on or before Dec. 21.

As heard on NPR's Morning Edition (Dec. 5, 2018)