With voter confidence on the line, all eyes on Bladen County as voting gets underway

With voter confidence on the line, all eyes on Bladen County as voting gets underway

ELIZABETHTOWN, NC (WECT) - A steady stream of people could be seen going in and out of the Bladen County Board of Elections office Friday, as the early voting period continued for its third day for the May 14 special election.

Just shy of five months after the North Carolina State Board of Elections refused to certify three races — Bladen County Commission District 3, Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor and North Carolina’s 9th congressional seat — voters are again taking to the polls.

Bladen County officials report as of 5 p.m. on April 26, 211 people have cast a ballot, and 71 absentee ballots have been requested, a respectable number, they say, given the small number of races and unusual timing of the election.

Early voting is underway in North Carolina's 9th congressional district (Source: WECT).
Early voting is underway in North Carolina's 9th congressional district (Source: WECT).

Not all voters are seeing the same ballot, either. Only a portion of Bladen County is in the 9th congressional district, and an even smaller number of voters are constituents of commission district 3. The Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor contest is the only race that will appear on all of the ballots in Bladen County, except the ones given to voters who will be 18 years old by September, but not by May 14.

Voting again

Given the events that put a national spotlight on the county, voters who spoke with WECT outside of the elections office say they were happy to perform their civic duty again.

“[You] do what you feel is right, and anything else that goes wrong, you know, it’s not on you,” life-long Bladen County resident Michael Smith said. “I feel like they needed a second chance, so I came out and did it again.”

Smith voted in 2018, and said he felt there is a “stigma” about Bladen County after the events of the last several months.

“You kind of felt a little uneasy about Bladen County, having that little stigma on them and everything, but like I said, you just know what’s right in your heart, and you go out and do what you need to do,” he said.

However, some, including Charles Bethea who is campaigning for Russell Priest for the commission seat, said they think if there was fraud, all of the races should have been re-done, not just a handful.

“If you’re going to do one election over, you might as well do all of it over,” Bethea said, “because right is right and fair is fair.”

WECT asked individuals campaigning on behalf of Priest’s challenger Wayne Edge for comment, but they declined the opportunity.

State oversight

In addition to the absentee ballot scheme that drew most of the attention at the state board’s hearing in February, NCSBE officials were also concerned about events that took place during early voting.

According to witness testimony, the results of early voting were tabulated three days too early, and those results were seen by more than one poll worker. Additionally, state officials had concerns about the security of the Bladen County BOE office, including an easily-accessible key to the room where ballots are kept.

Early voting is underway in North Carolina's 9th congressional district (Source: WECT).
Early voting is underway in North Carolina's 9th congressional district (Source: WECT).

When the board voted to call for new elections in Bladen County, board members said they wanted state staff to monitor the situation closely to prevent further issues.

NCSBE spokesperson Patrick Gannon said 10 staff members have been on the ground in Bladen and Robeson counties periodically over the last several weeks.

Gannon said staff have conducted “wellness checks” of both county offices to ensure compliance with state law, and staff are available to help county officials with whatever they need.

“State employees have checked in with them for every milestone to ensure they are completing required tasks,” Gannon said in an email. “We are working with them to ensure voting equipment, electronic poll books and other technical aspects of elections are properly in place and functional.”

Additionally, Gannon said the state has assisted in re-training all poll workers and precinct officials for both one-stop and Election Day voting, to ensure they are up to speed and issues like the ones seen in 2018 don’t pop up again.

When the time comes, he said NCSBE staff will remain onsite in both counties to monitor activity from end of one-stop voting through Election Day, and potentially a few days after that. Then, staff will sit in on county canvassing meetings, including absentee meetings.

Early voting runs through May 10 at the Bladen County Board of Elections office in Elizabethtown. Polls will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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