A 3-2 majority of the state elections board ruled in favor of Republican Jody Greene on Monday, ordering the Columbus County Board of Elections to certify Greene's 37-vote victory in the 2018 county sheriff's race over Democratic incumbent Lewis Hatcher.
The state board's ruling came despite voting irregularities during and before the 2018 election, and despite a dispute over Greene's residency status.
The irregularities included the delayed opening of a polling site in Tabor City, on Election Day. Attorney Irving Joyner, who represents Tabor City Mayor Nancy Hill and Gloria Smith, told the state board that a faulty process prevented some early-morning voters from casting ballots.
"Some worked in South Carolina and could not return later in the day. [They] did not know that the time had been extended for them to be able to vote, so you lost those votes," Joyner said. "How many, we don't know."
The election's challengers also cited the mishandling of absentee ballots collected from nine voters residing at a Columbus County nursing home, resulting in the disqualification of their votes.
"Collectively or cumulatively," Joyner said of the irregularities, "they cast doubt on the integrity of the process."
But Jody Greene's attorney, Boyd Worley, disagreed.
"It's not sufficient to state that an irregularity occurred, be it structural, personal, or what have you," Worley argued before the state board. "What's important is, does it call into question the outcome of the election?"
The answer to that question, Worley said, was no, as the Columbus County Board of Elections previously ruled. The state board now agrees, and will issue an order instructing the county board to certify Greene's slim margin of victory.
Challengers also argued Jody Greene, who lives in an RV in the Columbus County town of Cerro Gordo, was not a domiciled resident and, therefore, ineligible to run for sheriff.
But Greene's attorney pointed out that his driver's license, his vehicle registrations and other important documents, showed he had a Columbus County address as far back as 2014.
Appeals may be filed within 10 days of the state board's ruling that local elections officials certify Greene's victory.
The dispute over the election had racial undertones; Greene is white, Hatcher is black. Columbus County's population is almost evenly divided between black and white residents, though there are more than twice as many registered white voters than black voters. But registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more then 2-to-1.
An investigation by the state elections board also found Jody Greene contracted for the services of the political consulting firm Red Dome Group. Elections board investigator Joan Fleming testified at Monday's hearing on the Columbus County sheriff's race that the Greene campaign contracted with the firm on Red Dome founder Andy Yates's promise "that he would provide them with positive absentee ballot results, which they had not been able to get to that point in their campaign."
Fleming said the state board's findings were based on interviews with Jody Greene and his wife, Angie. Fleming also based her findings on the testimony of Lisa Britt, who appeared at the state election board's evidentiary hearing in February on absentee-ballot tampering in neighboring Bladen County and the 9th Congressional District.
Britt is an associate of political operative McCrae Dowless who faces felony charges of illegal absentee ballot tampering during the 9th District campaign of Republican Mark Harris. The Harris campaign paid Dowless as a contractor through Red Dome Group. Following the February hearing, the state elections board unanimously called for a new election in the 9th, which is underway.
According to investigator Fleming's testimony before the state board on Monday, Lisa Britt said McCrae Dowless had asked her to solicit absentee ballot request forms in Columbus County and return them to the local board of elections. Fleming also said she learned that Dowless had met with a county elections official and told her that he intended to have a worker drop off absentee request forms, which is not a crime.
Fleming testified at Monday's hearing that there was no mention of Dowless's name when Jody and Angie Greene met with Andy Yates of Red Dome but that Yates "did describe that he had a person who would be his person to run the absentee ballot program and that they would have workers go out and perform the duties that were promised."
According to Fleming, the Greene campaign was billed by Red Dome and an email accompanying that invoice included a claim that 310 absentee ballot requests had been collected by the consulting firm. Fleming added that the Greenes dispute the claim and believe they were defrauded to the tune of approximately $4,000.
In a follow-up email request for clarification sent by WUNC, State Board of Elections spokesman Patrick Gannon wrote that board investigators have "no evidence that the Jody Greene Campaign directly or indirectly knowingly contracted with McCrae Dowless."
Greene’s attorney Philip Isley said in a statement that "Greene’s campaign hired Red Dome Group during the 2018 election cycle" and that "there is a written contract memorializing this arrangement." Isley further wrote that "at no time did Jody Greene’s campaign hire or pay any money to McRae Dowless as confirmed by [State Board of Elections] officials.”
On Monday, Fleming told the state board that investigators are continuing to look into the monies paid to Red Dome.
She also made it clear that in their investigation of the Columbus County sheriff race, state elections investigators did not find any signs or markers of the kind of fraud seen in the 9th District.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Columbus County Sheriff candidate Jody Greene had contracted for the services of political operative McCrae Dowless. That was incorrect. The Greene campaign contracted with Red Dome Group, a political consulting firm run by Andy Yates. A state elections board investigation turned up no evidence that the Greene campaign directly or indirectly knowingly contracted with Dowless.