People collecting absentee request forms in bulk. Filling in votes. Tilting an election. These are allegations from Bladen County – but from 2016, not this year’s 9th Congressional District race between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Mark Harris.
Former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory said his complaints about absentee mail voting from a Democrat-leaning group in Bladen County two years didn't receive enough scrutiny.
“Our campaign received very similar complaints in Bladen and Robeson counties about absentee voting," McCrory said. "And we raised this issue with the elections board, and with the media, and were basically ignored."
“It was McCrory, just move on," he said. "(People said) this is not a problem in North Carolina. We do not have voting fraud in North Carolina and it would have not impacted your election. So, it’s kind of sad. Had there been an investigation done in 2016, then maybe this conversation maybe would not have happened in 2018.”
There was an investigation, but McCrory doesn’t think it was very thorough. That 2016 probe focused on the Bladen City Improvement Association, a political action committee that often works to elect Democrats. In that election, hundreds of voters chose the same write-in candidate for a water and soil conservation district seat.
The man who made the complaint about the write-in votes – with McCrory’s support – was McCrae Dowless, who won a water and soil conservation Seat.
McCrory believes those Bladen allegations from 2016 were a small example of widespread fraud throughout the state. He narrowly lost his reelection bid that year to Democrat Roy Cooper.
The N.C. Board of Elections, then controlled by Republicans, dismissed the Dowless and McCrory complaint. It did vote to send the evidence to the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District for North Carolina.
Maja Kricker, a former member of the board of elections, voted to dismiss the 2016 complaint. She said there weren't enough votes in question to change either the local water and soil race or the race for governor.
“Basically, we don’t really have a choice," she said. "We’re not an agency that can prosecute.”
But she said the state could have handled the case better to possibly prevent 2018’s 9th district meltdown.
“What we should have done was ask the staff of the board of elections to do PSAs on TV and radio," she said. "We could have explained on paper in large letters that you must not allow anyone who is not a relative to handle your ballot."
Two years later, some Bladen voters said Dowless' employees picked up their finished absentee ballots. That’s known as “harvesting” and it’s illegal.
Dowless worked for the Red Dome Group in Cornelius, which had been hired by Republican Mark Harris’ campaign.
McCrory today points fingers at the board of elections, as well as state and federal prosecutors for not doing enough.
Joshua Malcolm, a Democrat, is the only member of the State Board of Elections who was there in 2016 for the previous Bladen investigation. Last week, he blamed state and federal prosecutors for not doing more.
On Thursday, State Sen. Dan Bishop of Charlotte called for a newly created task force to investigate the problems in Bladen County.
Bladen’s District Attorney Jon David had referred three cases about possible fraud to the State Bureau of Investigation in Raleigh. One involved a political action committee Dowless founded in 2014, Patriots for Progress PAC. Another was the 2016 Bladen City Improvement investigation.
David recused himself from the investigations in a letter to the SBI in January. He wrote that Bladen County “has a troubled history of political groups exploiting the use of absentee ballots” and said those groups have tried to get him to hire them when he ran for office.
Meanwhile in 2018, little changed.
Lola Wooten was paid $65 by the Bladen Improvement Association to get out the vote efforts, according to the State Board of Elections. She brought 213 absentee ballot requests to the Bladen Board of Elections, according to the state.
Prentis Bentson of the Bladen Improvement Association said his group collected absentee ballot requests, but not completed ballots.
“There’s nothing wrong with you bringing in those requests," he said. But harvesting finished ballots is "something that we knew was definitely illegal.”
On Thursday, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, Dallas Woodhouse, said he doesn't dismiss that illegal ballot harvesting occurred. But that doesn’t necessarily meet his threshold for calling a new election.
Woodhouse said harvesting ballots is illegal, but not necessarily fraudulent. He said the state needs to find evidence of people's ballots being thrown away or tampered with to call a new election.
Harris leads McCready by 905 votes.