COLUMBUS COUNTY, NC (WECT) - The ties between Columbus and Bladen counties run deep — Columbus was the last to leave the “Mother County” in 1808, and the two share the history of the Waccamaw people.
In 2018, the counties shared something else: absentee ballot issues, which in Bladen County were significant enough to require a new election in a U.S. House of Representatives race.
Out of the 557 absentee by mail ballots sent to voters in Columbus County, 181 were not returned.
That 32% rate of ballots not coming back to the board of elections was among the 10 highest in the state.
Beyond the numerical similarities and known activity of the same parties involved in the 9th district election fraud case, Columbus County shares additional parallels: personal accounts of irregularities.
Over two days, the WECT Investigates team knocked on more than four dozen doors of Columbus County voters who were listed as having not returned an absentee ballot. The team focused on Chadbourn, because of the significant number of unreturned ballots clustered in the area.
Some on the list were not home, and a few reported typical reasons for not returning an absentee ballot, but around half described experiences of individuals going door to door collecting request forms, absentee ballots showing up out of the blue, and even forgery.
Afterward, WECT examined redacted absentee ballot request forms, and distinct patterns emerged — including a group of 16 Chadbourn forms where the handwriting appears to be the same, all signed on the same date, Aug. 10.
‘That wasn’t my signature.’
Bobby Pittman, a Chadbourn resident, is adamant he never filled out one of those forms for the November 2018 election.
That’s a problem, because according to CCBOE and state records, Pittman was mailed an absentee ballot on Sept. 21.
Pittman’s ballot, along with three others from people living at the end of the same dusty road, never made it back to the CCBOE.
Pittman said he would have voted in person but was in jail during the election for a misdemeanor drug charge.
In addition to WECT, Pittman told his story to investigators from the NCSBE who were on the ground in Chadbourn just days before reporters.
Those investigators, Pittman said, showed him the absentee ballot request form he allegedly filled out and mailed in, but Pittman maintains he did not.
“The form, the absentee, where you’re supposed to sign and vote later, they showed me all that. I didn’t do none of that,” he said.
Pittman says the signature at the bottom of the form was not his.
“Somebody else signed it,” he said. “I told them, ‘I can sign right now, you’d see the signature’s forged.’”
Weeks after his was sent, Pittman’s neighbor Barbara Bellamy also received an absentee ballot she says she didn’t request, but she did mail it back, and it was counted.
Pittman isn’t the only person who has told investigators someone else signed their absentee ballot request form.
Two other Chadbourn voters, Lonnie Inman and Houston Scott, had a similar story.
Inman was out of town when WECT visited, but his brother said Inman told the NCSBE investigators that someone had forged his signature on the form. Scott’s grandmother said when the NCSBE came by Scott wasn’t home, but that he had expressed the same concern.
While not alleging forgery, nine other voters said they did not request an absentee ballot, despite what the record reflects.
For some, such as Pernell Turner, the by-mail ballot is marked in the record as “spoiled,” in most cases meaning that person requested a ballot but then voted in person.
Turner said he was suspicious when a ballot showed up unannounced, because he’s never been one to vote absentee.
“I always thought going in and doing it was better than sending something in,” he said. “There’s just too many ways for there to be an error, and I didn’t want there to be no error.”
Turner says it’s possible his uncle requested a ballot on his behalf, but it’s unlikely. His uncle, Paul Davis, did vote absentee by mail, and records show his ballot was returned to the CCBOE exactly one day after Turner’s was requested.
Requested, returned, but uncounted
Four Chadbourn residents said they filled out an absentee ballot and put it in the mail, but there is no record of their vote.
Lester Dudley and Shenell McKoy said they put their signed, sealed ballots into the U.S. Postal Service box themselves, but neither has a voter history for 2018.
McKoy said that was disturbing, particularly because she and Dudley are Hatcher supporters and the race was so close.
Another, Ricky Logan, said he received his ballot and mailed it back the same day, but again state records show it was never received and his vote was not counted.
The fourth, Dorian Carmichael, would have been a new voter this year, but said the same thing happened to him.
A few voters, including Carmichael, recalled nearly identical experiences to those detailed in Bladen County, where individuals would go door to door, encouraging people to fill out an absentee ballot request form.
Joseph Gaskins recalls a woman approaching him while he worked in his back yard. He said he didn’t catch her name but described her as a slender white woman. When shown a photo of Lisa Britt, who worked with Dowless in Bladen County, Gaskins said it may have been her, but with almost nine months having passed he couldn’t be sure.
He said he filled out the form, but the ballot never came, so he voted in person — which he typically does anyway.
Gaskins said he has also been approached by NCSBE investigators.
Another Chadbourn voter, Richard Smith, said he and others were approached by two women while he was at his uncle’s house.
Smith said the women encouraged them to fill out a form, which he believed to be a voter registration form, rather than an absentee ballot request form.
He said he never received a ballot in the mail, and voted in person.
According to state records, Smith was registered to vote on Aug. 23, 2018 — the exact same date as several other new voters on the list of unreturned absentee ballots, several of whom also reported being visited by individuals going door to door.
In one case, a woman at the home of a voter said he didn’t request a ballot, and wouldn’t have, because he is under the impression he cannot vote due to his criminal record.
On more than one occasion, reporters found that the person listed as having requested an absentee ballot no longer lives at the address to which it was mailed. In some cases, the person hadn’t lived there in years.
Tyesha Peppers and Barbara Young were mailed absentee ballots at the same Chadbourn address, but neither woman lives in the town — or the state.
Their mother, Lily Peppers, said the women both live in New York, and have for years.
“They lived here up until they was like teenagers, 18, 17,” Lily Peppers said, “and then they went to New York to live with their aunt.”
She said one of her daughters was in Columbus County visiting in the weeks leading up to Hurricane Florence, but they never mentioned anything about requesting an absentee ballot or voting in the November election.
“Somebody might have asked them to do it and they said yes,” she said, clarifying, “I don’t want to say no, and then when I do hear from them and ask them about it they get to laughin and say, ‘Oh yeah, mama, one day we was walking and someone asked them to do it’ and they said yes.”
There were other cases where reporters were unable to locate the voter in question:
- One Chadbourn residence was empty, neighbors saying the occupant moved out months ago.
- A Bolton home was almost completely burned down, and calls to the volunteer fire department to determine the date of the fire were unreturned.
- Another Chadbourn property owner told reporters the voter they were looking for had vacated the rented property with no forwarding address.
- At a senior apartment community in Whiteville, a woman who answered the door at the address of one voter said the person listed on voting records as having requested an absentee ballot at that address had moved out years ago.
A smaller scale, but same concerns
The NCSBE’s investigation into the possible absentee ballot irregularities in Columbus County is ongoing, though its scope is unclear.
In the instances where WECT’s investigation overlapped with the state, voters said they were asked to describe their experience and compare the handwriting and signatures on absentee ballot request forms in the state’s custody.
While it is unknown exactly how many ballots are involved, the trends seen mirror what was heavily investigated just across the county line.
The percentage of unreturned ballots in Columbus County surpassed the 24% rate in the 9th congressional district that set off alarm bells, and while not quite as high as the 43% unreturned in neighboring Bladen County, Columbus County saw the same precipitous increase from 2014 to 2018.
Columbus’ 32% rate was 12% higher than the county experienced in the 2016 election, and more than double of what occurred during the 2014 midterms.
Beyond these similarities, those involved have said outright that the same situation was playing out in Columbus County.
At the NCSBE’s February hearings on the Bladen County case, Andy Yates with Red Dome Group confirmed that Dowless was working for Columbus County candidates such as Jody Greene and Brenden Jones in the same way he was working for those in Bladen County.
As far back as December, officials at the CCBOE said Dowless was either at their office or requesting information by phone or email nearly every day. Those emails were later produced as part of an ongoing federal lawsuit, corroborating that description.
Embattled acting sheriff Jody Greene himself confirmed in December that Dowless had worked for his campaign on behalf of Red Dome Group, and though Greene said he didn’t handle the details, his sister is copied on numerous emails sent to Dowless containing absentee ballot data.
At that time Greene said he was actually disappointed in the work Dowless had done for his campaign, saying Dowless must have been more focused on Bladen and Robeson counties, because he only helped bring in about 65 absentee ballots for the campaign.
Red Dome Group is also on the books having worked for State House Representative Brenden Jones, who has repeatedly refused to comment to WECT on the matter, but has told other media outlets that he was aware of the absentee program and Dowless’ involvement, though he denies knowledge that there was anything illegal going on.
As in Bladen County, the state’s investigation comes while there is still one unresolved election from 2018.
The sheriff’s race between Greene, the Republican, and incumbent Democrat Lewis Hatcher ended with a razor-thin margin of just 37 votes.
On Monday, May 6, the NCSBE will take up allegations that Greene is not a domiciled resident of Columbus County, and therefore ineligible to be sheriff in the first place.
The board, with its wide latitude of powers to consider evidence and allegations, may also consider the absentee ballot irregularities and the NCSBE staff’s investigation into the “factual overlap” of what happened in Columbus versus Bladen County.
In that case, the board found enough evidence of fraud to call for a new election in the 9th congressional district as well as two local Bladen County races.
State law dictates that the board can consider irregularities and allegations of fraud in two manners, either that enough ballots to change the outcome were directly affected — or that there is enough evidence to cast doubt on the fairness of the election, or “taint” the race.
The agenda for Monday’s hearing does not directly reference absentee ballot irregularities, but in past meeting notices the state has indicated it may call Executive Director Kim Strach or one of the investigators to testify on the matter.
For some voters, however, the damage is already done.
“This voting stuff that’s going on now. It’s ridiculous. It’s totally ridiculous,” Turner said, standing on his doorstep contemplating everything that has come out over the last several months.
“It makes some people not want to vote, because they think that their vote doesn’t count.”