BLADEN COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Longtime Bladen County resident Russel Priest wasn’t in Raleigh for the hearing into election fraud in his community but the investigation has affected his political career.
Election results as of Nov. 6, 2018, had Priest, the incumbent Democrat for the third county commission district, beating Republican Wayne Edge 2,401-2,167. The 5.12 percent margin was well above the state’s recount provision but on Nov. 30 the North Carolina State Board of Elections included the contest in its vote to not certify winners of three elections.
The races for Bladen County Commission District 3, Bladen County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor and U.S. House of Representatives District 9 will now be re-run. The NCSBE is expected to vote on a schedule in the coming weeks.
For the soil and water race, which is non-partisan, the top two finishers were Earl Storms and Charles Wendell Gillespie, who received 6,708 and 5,047 votes, respectively. Again, with a 10 percent margin, the race was not eligible for a recount.
When certifications in the two local races were initially withheld, election officials at the state and county level said the local races were involved due to the margin of victory in each but did not elaborate.
Due to spending below the reporting requirement, limited campaign finance documents are available for Priest and Edge but no material connections to the parties involved in the state’s fraud investigation have been found by WECT.
Priest said he knows some of the people involved but he had nothing to do with the absentee ballot activity detailed at the hearing in Raleigh.
“I knew some of them but I was in a different category than they were,” Priest said, referring to his political affiliation.
Though McCrae Dowless, the man at the center of the state’s investigation, has worked for Democratic candidates in the past, records show the operative has worked exclusively with Republicans since 2013. Priest, who has served on the Bladen County Commission, said he was not questioned about the investigation or asked to attend the hearing.
“A lot of the people were subpoenaed. I wasn’t," Priest said.
That’s part of the reason he is so frustrated, he said.
“(The community knows) me. I’m a school teacher, coach. Everybody knows me, and that’s why I was so disappointed," he said.
Priest, who has served on the commission for 11 years, is still serving. North Carolina election law holds that the previous office holder — Priest in this case — maintains the office until a new winner is declared.
When the time comes for the new election, Priest says he plans to once again seek the office.
“I plan to run, and I plan to win. That’s my plan,” he said.
Edge could not be reached for comment after the state board voted to hold a new election but in a letter to the board in early January, Edge said he was in favor of certification.
“Both Russell and I share a love for community, county and above all the well being of the citizens of Bladen," Edge’s letter reads. “The citizens have decided by casting their votes on Election Day.”
There will not be a new primary in the election for Bladen County commissioner so the ballot would still reflect Edge’s name even if he decided not to campaign.
While only those in District 3 will vote on the county commission race, the entire county will have the chance to vote for the Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor.
Because that is a countywide race, County Manager Greg Martin said all precincts will be open on Election Day — whenever it is — even if just for that race.