2 Years After Election Fraud Scandal, Bladen County Voters Head To The Polls
A line of 10-20 people stretched outside the Elizabethtown recreation center for most of the morning Thursday, on the first day of early voting in North Carolina. An elections worker wearing a face shield and a mask worked the curbside voting area, where people could drive up and vote in their car. Candidates also had booths set up near the line, with organizers passing out literature to voters.
Walking out of the recreation center, Miles Hair said he usually votes early in person.
"Well one thing, I wanted to get it over with, and that way I don’t have to worry about getting in the longer lines and things," Hair said. "Because I knew it wouldn’t be too bad the first day."
Hair said he didn’t consider voting by mail, because of the issues he’s had with the post office delivering to his house. And then there’s the issue of the election fraud scandal in his county from two years ago that added to his hesitation to vote by mail.
In 2018, a political operative named McCrae Dowless allegedly directed others in an absentee ballot scheme that collected ballots from voters and sometimes completed them, both of which are illegal in North Carolina. Dowless worked for Republican candidate Mark Harris, who narrowly won the election.
However, the state Board of Elections refused to certify the results after spotting irregularities, and a new election was called in 2019. Harris did not run, but Republican Dan Bishop won the seat over Democrat Dan McCready.
This year, the local parties also had a presence at Bladen’s six early voting sites. Party members observed voters standing outside and staff managing the process.
Wayne Schaeffer leads the Bladen County Republican Party and is a poll observer. He said he was making sure staff follow the board of elections’ rules. Schaeffer said while absentee voting is an option, he was encouraging people to vote in person.
"I have consistently hammered on the point that we felt that in-person voting would be the preference," Schaeffer said. "Pandemic notwithstanding, look, if you can go to the grocery store or go over here to Walmart and shop, if you can go out to one of these restaurants and have dinner, you can certainly show up to the polls and vote."
Also walking around outside the recreation center was Dwight Sheppard, a poll observer for the Democratic Party. Sheppard had visited four of the county’s six early voting sites by the middle of the day. He said all of them had significant numbers of people already turning out to vote.
"I think you’re going to see most of the people — in not only this county but across the state of North Carolina — will have voted before Election Day," Sheppard said. "Because there’s just that anticipation of problems on Election Day that people just want to avoid. And I’m thinking not just problems of violence but long lines and exposure to coronavirus."
During the 2016 presidential election in Bladen County, 9,632 people voted early in person, with another 1,021 people voting by mail. That's in a county of about 33,000 people. The county board of elections said it’s had a bit more than 1,900 mail ballot requests for the general election — about 500 more absentee mail ballots than in 2016. Two years ago, Bladen had 1,747 absentee ballots requested, some of those from the ballot harvesting scandal.
Sheppard believed the 2018 election scandal made some voters lose confidence that their vote would count in the election. After the scandal, the State Board of Elections replaced the county elections director and added new staff members. Sheppard said he has confidence in how the board is running this election.
Outside Ray’s Furniture in Elizabethtown, Ray Britt said he hasn’t changed much of how he reaches voters. Britt is a Republican and the incumbent chair of the County Commission. The only change in his campaigning was not doing large, in-person events.
"I would say no, other than that, which that’s a lot, to be honest with you," Britt said. "Where sometimes you have forums and events like that, that’s been obsolete, that’s not taking place."
Britt knew the 2018 scandal has cast a shadow on Bladen County, but he didn't believe anything wrong happened. He bailed McCrae Dowless out of jail after the scandal and said the facts will show Dowless didn’t run a ballot harvesting scheme. Dowless is still awaiting trial for those charges.
Later in the afternoon, another early voting site in nearby Bladenboro had a slow but steady stream of voters coming in and out.
Sarah Lennon was one of them. She lives in Bladenboro and said she usually votes early but can’t always find time to make it to the polls on the first day. Lennon said she was careful to fill out her ballot correctly, given the 2018 scandal.
"It was really disappointing, and embarrassing, that this is such a wonderful community, and Bladen County is a fine, fine county and fine, fine people," Lennon said. "It was just a shame that the actions of a few had (to) reflect so poorly on the rest of us."
Lennon said she doesn’t trust voting absentee by mail and that everyone she knows plans to vote in person. Many people repeated this concern about the absentee ballot process, preferring to vote early in person. The election fraud scandal is still top of mind for many voters here, and they’re coming out in person to make sure their vote will be counted.
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