The epicenter of absentee mail fraud allegations in the 9th Congressional District is Bladen County, specifically in a small town called Bladenboro, 150 miles from Charlotte.
Bladenboro has only 1,700 people, but it’s arguably one of the most civic-engaged places in North Carolina – at least judging by how many people voted by absentee mail ballots.
According to state records, 709 people requested absentee by mail ballots in Bladenboro and surrounding areas, with 328 being returned and accepted by the Board of Elections.
One Bladenboro voter, who asked not to be named, said a volunteer came to her house repeatedly, wanting to watch and help her fill out her absentee ballot.
“I told them at that moment that I didn’t have the time to do it right then when she wanted to," the woman said. "So she left. She came back again a couple days later. And I was getting ready to go out, so I didn’t have time. She came back a third time, but I had already filled it out and had mailed it in. And I told her that.”
She said she voted for Republican Mark Harris over Democrat Dan McCready for the 9th Congressional District.
Bladenboro voter Beverly Tyler lives in the Village Oaks apartments, where Harris volunteers signed numerous people up to vote by mail.
Tyler said someone came to her apartment and asked her to a request an absentee mail ballot, and then came back to pick it up.
"She came back and got it," Tyler said. "And I hadn’t voted in a long time, and I didn’t know nothing about voting, and I didn’t want to do it. I don’t know nothing about the person, but I put two and two together when I saw the news. I know why you are here."
She said she voted for Harris because the woman had praised him.
In North Carolina, any voter can choose to vote absentee mail, and campaign volunteers can go door-to-door to encourage people to vote that way.
But they aren’t allowed to coerce or intimidate anyone into voting a certain way. And it’s illegal to take possession of someone’s ballot, as Tyler said happened to her.
Leading up to the Nov. 6 election, Bladenboro was the focus of an aggressive vote by mail effort that’s part of an investigation by the NC board of elections. The state board had twice voted against certifying the race and has said it will conduct a public hearing into the fraud allegations on or before Dec. 21.
Shanda Mers, who lives in an apartment complex near the Village Oaks, said two people offered to pick up her ballot and bring it to the board of elections.
“They came by and asked if we wanted an absentee ballot, and then said they would turn it in," she said. "But I had already turned it in. I had went and voted."
McCrae Dowless, a member of the county’s Water and Soil Conservation District, is also a political consultant. Dowless, who lives in Bladenboro, worked for the Harris campaign, tasked with get-out-the-vote efforts.
What’s unclear is whether what Beverly Tyler said about someone illegally picking up her ballot was common – or if Dowless and his employees were only encouraging people to vote by mail.
Ray Britt, the chair of the Bladen County Commission, said last week that getting people to vote absentee by mail is something of a tradition in Bladen and that there isn't anything wrong with that.
In the May Republican primary between Mark Harris and Robert Pittenger, 22 percent of Bladen voters voted absentee by mail – by far the highest percentage in the district. 96 percent of those voters chose Harris.
One woman, Ginger Eason, told WSOC-TV Monday that Dowless paid her to pick up absentee mail ballots. That’s illegal.
The North Carolina Democratic Party has produced affidavits from five people who alleged wrongdoing in the county, including three voters who said their absentee ballots were mishandled. One woman said another person picked up her ballot and that she would fill in the rest.
What's unclear is also the fate of hundreds of absentee by mail ballots that were requested in Bladen and Robeson counties but never returned to the county boards of elections. Robeson and Bladen had the highest percentage of absentees that were never returned in the state.