RALEIGH, NC (WECT) - It was a split ruling at the North Carolina State Board of Elections with regard to the Columbus County sheriff’s race, but the result was the same: the board sided with Jody Greene.
In a 4-1 decision, the North Carolina State Board of Elections voted to overrule the call made by the Columbus County Board of Elections in the matter of Greene’s residency.
Board members indicated petitioners Gloria Smith and Nancy Hill did not meet the burden of proof to show Greene is not a domiciled resident of Columbus County.
Board member Stella Anderson said she believed the CCBOE put an “inordinate” amount of weight on whether or not a recreational vehicle is a proper residence, as well as the electric bills submitted as evidence.
Anderson went on to say she thought there was overwhelming evidence that Greene was not only domiciled in Cerro Gordo within the required timeline for the 2018 race, but for a few years prior as well.
The only board member voting against the motion, Jeff Carmon, said he had issues with Greene’s intent to have his domicile in Cerro Gordo, because he believes Greene has not followed through on the “action” portion of the intent requirement. He said if Greene truly intended to make 1049 Page Mill Road his home, then he would have prioritized it over his beach house in North Myrtle Beach.
Carmon said he found it “hard to believe” someone of Greene’s “caliber” would have put work into a beach house before his Columbus County home, if that were his true intention.
NCSBE chair Bob Cordle said what was put forward raises questions about Greene’s residency, but the evidence the board had to consider from the April 3-4 hearing and the testimony given Monday were not sufficient.
Board members also went back and forth over the actions of the CCBOE, specifically about how the board reached its decision, with Ken Raymond saying he felt the board used its own opinion and county ordinances — specifically the county’s view that recreational vehicles are not proper housing — to make the decision, rather than the state statute of domicile.
In consideration of the other election protests in the race, the board was split.
The board voted 3-2 to dismiss the protests of Smith and Hill, saying while a multitude of issues occurred during the election, they were not enough to cast doubt on the validity of its outcome.
Attorney Irving Joyner had argued the various voting issues outlined in the protests amount to “structural” errors or irregularities, casting doubt on the election’s integrity.
Two incidents were discussed in depth: the failure of poll workers to bring ballots to the Tabor City polling place on Election Day, and nine absentee ballots that showed up out of protocol when the requests came in after the deadline.
CCBOE Executive Director Carla Strickland gave emotional testimony during the hearing.
Anderson questioned Strickland about what records were kept regarding issues with the Tabor City ballots, and how she could be sure how many voters may have been affected.
Strickland said no record was kept of what voters tried to vote but were unable to, which is something she agreed was a mistake.
Additionally, Strickland testified that precinct officials at Tabor City called the CCBOE office twice the morning of Election Day, asking about the missing ballots. Both times, she said, staff told the precinct officials to check again.
Strickland says when she looked in the locked ballot room, she easily found the missing ballots, and says she sent them out the door immediately before calling the CCBOE and then the state.
Regarding the nine absentee ballots, Strickland said she believes members of her staff purposefully broke protocol and “lied to [her] face” because they are trying to usurp her authority and have her removed from her position.
Board member David Black said what happened during the 2018 election in Columbus County was a “calamity of errors," but that there wasn’t evidence to support the assertion that the outcome of the election was affected.
NCSBE counsel Josh Lawson said an official order will be written, and there will be a 10-day appeal window.
Attorney Oscar Blanks, who represented former Sheriff Lewis Hatcher, said his client plans to appeal to the Wake County Superior Court.
“We have a natural right to appeal, and that’s what we plan to do,” Blanks said.
Smith indicated she also plans to appeal.
NCSBE attorney Josh Lawson explained that if parties appeal the protest dismissal within the 10-day window, Greene’s certification as the winner of the sheriff’s election will be withheld again.
On top of the protests and residency issues, the board also gave attorneys the chance to hear from NCSBE investigator Joan Fleming.
Fleming, who was the main investigator involved in the 9th congressional district investigation, detailed parts of the investigation not subject to confidentiality due to ongoing criminal proceedings.
Based on three levels of evidence, Fleming said McCrae Dowless, who was indicted on felony election fraud charges for his work in Bladen and Robeson counties, did indeed have an absentee ballot operation in Columbus County.
However, the details are different.
Lisa Britt, who was one of the main operatives for Dowless, told investigators she turned in 150 absentee ballot request forms to the CCBOE.
Britt did not sign the request form log, and was not asked to by CCBOE staff — an irregularity Fleming said they are still investigating.
Later on, Britt brought an additional batch of request forms in.
Unlike Bladen County, however, Britt told investigators Dowless’ workers never came back for the “second phase” of the absentee ballot program to actually pick up the ballots.
Fleming said based on the ballot return envelopes and interviews with voters, they have not found evidence that ballots were being collected in the same way as in Bladen County.
She did say there was a separate absentee ballot situation happening in Columbus County with an individual unaffiliated with Dowless, but did not go into detail as that investigation is ongoing as well.
Fleming said unlike Mark Harris, Greene had a contract with Red Dome Group, and while that contract does not name Dowless, it does indicate a Red Dome Group contractor would “guarantee” absentee ballot results.
She said the contract, money paid and promises made are still under investigation, but that the Greene campaign believes it was “defrauded” of more than $4,000 because Dowless inflated the number of absentee ballot request forms solicited in the county.
Fleming said when the investigation is complete, only then could her department put together a full report.