State will monitor new elections in Bladen County

State will monitor new elections in Bladen County
The front door of the Bladen County Board of Elections office. (Source: Corey Schmidt)

BLADEN COUNTY, NC (WECT) - The hearing into election fraud in parts of North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District might be over but the work in Bladen County is just beginning.

The front door of the Bladen County Board of Elections office.
The front door of the Bladen County Board of Elections office. (Source: Corey Schmidt)

The North Carolina State Board of Elections voted unanimously to order a new election in the congressional race, but also in two local races: Bladen County Commission District 3 and Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor.

While all eyes were on Mark Harris after he reversed course and said he believed there should be a new election, NCSBE Executive Director Kim Strach continued presenting evidence that left board members concerned about the county’s ability to conduct the upcoming special elections.

One of the board staff’s major categories of evidence was the organization and lack of security at the Bladen County Board of Elections.

First, Strach said, the board of elections office shares a building with the Veterans Affairs office. Access to the elections space, and even sensitive information, was not well-restricted, she said.

The key to the room where ballots were stored was also not secured, Strach said, and at one point was hanging on the wall visible to anyone who entered the office.

Additionally, despite a recommendation from the county board of elections at the time, the space was not compliant with security protocols set by the Department of Homeland Security, which was one of the reasons Jens Lutz said he was resigning from the board in early December.

Strach presented minutes of a county commission meeting where the need to improve security was discussed but ultimately denied. Some members of the commission have been resistant to calls for a new election, and officials passed a resolution in December asking the state board to certify races that were outstanding.

During that testimony, all three poll workers said they had no idea the practice was against state election protocol.

Right now, Bladen County has no board of elections. Earlier this month, the new state board declined to appoint a new county board of elections until the investigation was over. NCSBE spokesperson Patrick Gannon said the board will appoint a new county board at a future meeting but a date for that meeting has not been set.

NCSBE members agreed at the hearing in Raleigh that in light of the information revealed during the testimony, additional oversight is needed of the upcoming special elections in Bladen County.

“State board members agreed at the evidentiary hearing that the agency should look closely at the operations and oversight of the Bladen County Board of Elections, given the recent developments,” Gannon said.

Gannon said NCSBE staff will orchestrate the oversight, and details will be announced in the coming weeks.

Local effects

While the state will be overseeing the election in some form, it will still be up to Bladen County officials to make it happen — and to foot the bill.

Bladen County manager Greg Martin said the state hasn’t provided him with the details, so there isn’t a cost estimate yet. However, Martin said the expense of running an unanticipated election will go beyond what the county has budgeted, and more funds will need to be appropriated.

The 2018-2019 budget for the elections department is just over $355,000.

Each fiscal year the county sees either a primary election or a general election, plus local municipal elections during odd years. The county budgets between $50,000 and $70,000 per year for operating expenses, and around $90,000 for contract labor, which includes polling place employees.

Martin said because the Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor race is county-wide, all polling places will have to be open on Election Day, even if they aren’t in the 9th congressional district or the affected county commission district.

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