Fresh 9th Congressional District Race Means Test For New Bladen County Elections Board

May 9, 2019

The Bladen County Board of Elections
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC

Bladen County was ground zero for the vote tampering scandal that led to a new election in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District.

Local political operative McCrae Dowless, who worked for Republican candidate Mark Harris, now faces felony charges of illegally handling absentee ballots in that race.

But lax elections oversight by local officials is something Bladen County voters have had to deal with for a long time, according to Democrat Patricia Sheppard who was recently appointed to the Bladen County Board of Elections.

"The biggest challenge for us is restoring the faith of voters in Bladen County," said Sheppard, one of the board's new Democratic members. Sheppard is also a former second vice chair of the local Democratic party.

"They've become so cynical over the years," she said, referring to voters in Bladen County. "And it's been 'Business as usual,' and, 'This has been going on for so long' ... We hear all the time from people saying, 'I'm not going to bother voting,' 'My vote doesn't count,' 'Somebody's just going to steal it.'"

In March, the state elections board appointed Sheppard and two others, Democrat Deborah Belle and Republican Emery White, to the five-member Bladen County board.

White initially declined to serve but has since taken his post on the board. A fourth member, Chairwoman Louella Thompson, subsequently was appointed. The board can act with just four members but a fifth eventually will be appointed. The fifth member cannot be a Democrat.

Bladen County Board of Elections members Emery White, left, a Republican, and Deborah Belle, a Democrat, review absentee ballot applications submitted during early voting in the 9th Congressional District's election.
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC

Republican Emery White shares Democrat Patricia Sheppard's view that corruption in Bladen County elections has been a problem in the past but not just a GOP problem.

"They needed to investigate both sides, not just one side. They needed to go both sides and they only went one side," White said.

To safeguard the integrity of the new race, the state has sent an elections official, Veronica Degraffenreid, to observe, assist and guide county staff.

Veronica Degraffenreid is director of elections operations on the staff of the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

Degraffenreid said county elections officials, feeling embattled because of the investigation into voting irregularities in 2018, did not receive her and other state staff too warmly at first.

"You know, they were feeling on edge and they were feeling like they had been under attack, you know, from the world and certainly from the nation about elections administration in Bladen County," said Degraffenreid.

Indeed, the mood among county staff back in December 2018, at the height of the state's investigation, was "rough," said Valeria Peacock McKoy.

Veronica Degraffenreid (right), director of elections operations with the North Carolina State Board of Elections, assisting Bladen County Board of Elections acting Director Valeria Peacock McKoy (left) prepare for a meeting to review absentee ballot requests during early voting in the new 9th Congressional District election.
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC

McKoy is the acting director of Bladen County's elections board staff. She took over after Cynthia Shaw left her post in December, just as the state elections board was investigating wrongdoing in the 2018 election. Shaw had just a month left before her planned retirement and used accumulated vacation and sick time to leave early.

Before taking over as director, McKoy was Shaw's assistant deputy. McKoy says she doesn't think there were any problems with the elections board staff in Bladen County prior to the 2018 voting scandal but that the state's assistance is welcome.

"They brought in a lot of, lot of paperwork, more paperwork for our poll workers and ourselves to do. But after you look at it you realize it's necessary," McKoy said. "They've given us checklists that we didn't have before that have been very helpful."

Veronica Degraffenreid said that when state elections staff first arrived in Bladen County to help prepare for the new election, they found there was a lot of work to be done.

"Sometimes people do the same thing, the same way all the time and they don't realize they need to change," she said.

Degraffenreid said the state provided training for people who would serve as precinct judges and poll workers.

"And that opened their eyes," she added. "It opened the eyes of, you know, precinct officials who have been precinct officials for years and they were like 'Oh, we never knew that, we didn't know that.' I mean, and they were thankful."

State elections board staff will continue to monitor the Bladen County board throughout the 2019 redo.