RALEIGH, NC (WECT) - Just released transcripts from a State Board of Elections hearing in early December reveal new details about allegations of voter fraud in Bladen County. The hearing drew statewide attention because of its potential implications on the tight governor's race.
During a five-hour hearing on Dec. 3, the board heard allegations from candidate McCrae Dowless and attorneys for Governor Pat McCrory, along with a Bladen County Board of Elections member who first notified the state board in October about irregularities he'd observed on absentee ballots.
Democrats and Republicans on the State Board of Elections agreed that there was enough probable cause to move forward with a full hearing about the Bladen County absentee ballot issue.
Rodger Knight, an attorney representing Dowless and McCrory, told the SBOE that an "inspection of approximately 400 absentee mail-in ballots…indicates a scheme or an organized effort, where it appears the purported voter did not actually vote the ballot himself."
While reviewing absentee ballots, Bladen County Board of Elections Member Brian Hehl testified they noticed similar handwriting on many ballots for the write-in candidate Franklin Graham for Soil and Water Conservation supervisor. They then determined that the witnesses for many of these ballots were Get Out the Vote workers for the Bladen County Improvement Association PAC.
Specifically, Mary Johnson signed as a witness to at least 74 ballots, Deborah Moore signed as a witness for 67 ballots, Lola Wooten signed as a witness for at least 58 ballots, and Barbara Cogdell signed as a witness to 45 ballots. All of these women are paid workers for the BCIA.
Notably, most of the ballots they signed do not indicate that the voter requested assistance for filling out their ballot, as is required when someone else fills out a ballot for you.
"We felt like that this was, for lack of better terms, not right, and that we were concerned that somebody's vote was not going to be counted or somebody's vote was going to be wrongly counted, so we felt like we needed to look into that," Hehl testified of the Bladen County Board of Election's concerns about the irregular ballots.
A handwriting expert hired by Governor McCrory's campaign examined copies of the ballots in question and confirmed that the write-in candidates on many of the ballots were likely filled in by the same person.
Although there is no indication that he actively campaigned, Franklin Graham got 3,743 write-in votes, out of about 11,400 votes cast in that race. Although he won the race, McCrae Dowless launched an official protest because of the unusually high number of write-in votes. An attorney for Governor McCrory's campaign filed the protest for Dowless.
Two affidavits filed by voters were referenced during the hearing. Those voters raised concerns about the Get Out the Vote efforts. Heather Register and Linda Baldwin said workers came to their door asking them to request absentee ballots, saying the workers would be paid if they did.
"There is an incentive to – not necessarily to help people vote, but to generate absentee ballots," Knight explained to the board. "The affidavits do not describe people going out to see the sick, the disabled, the infirm, the blind, or the illiterate."
Furthermore, Register said that the absentee ballot she requested never came, and when she went to vote in person on Election Day, she was turned away because she had already filled out an absentee ballot. Register insists she did not.
"In my community, GOTV is not a crime," Irving Joyner, an attorney representing the Bladen County Improvement Association told the state board. "[These efforts to help] are not criminal events, but public service opportunities."
Kevin Hamilton, an attorney for the Roy Cooper Campaign and the North Carolina Democratic Party, also explained to the board why he found nothing unusual with a single witness appearing on dozens of ballots.
"It often happens after church on a Sunday that the folks will be all in one place where there's – it's easy to…or instances of campaign volunteers walking around assisting voters who might live alone and need somebody to witness their ballot," Hamilton said. At worst, he thought this was a case of Get Out the Vote workers giving improper assistance, indicating he had yet to see evidence proving that. Attorneys said improperly assisting voters on an absentee ballot is a felony.
Get Out the Vote efforts were happening on both sides. Dowless had been endorsed by the Bladen County Improvement Association in the 2012 election. He founded his own organization, Patriots for Progress, in 2014, but later resigned. During the 2016 election, Dowless hired a Get Out the Vote team who recruited voters to request absentee ballots.
Knight requested that the ballots in question be entirely disqualified, because "it is impossible to determine the intent of the voter because we don't know what part of that… ballot the voter voted."
Opponents argued that registered voters still signed these ballots, and questions over the handwriting for the write-in candidate or allegations of improper assistance should not disqualify the rest of their ballot.
In a split 3-2 vote, the SBOE determined there were not enough votes in question to change the outcome of the election, and they dismissed Dowless's complaint. However, they unanimously decided to pass along all their notes and findings to the US Attorney in Raleigh to determine if criminal activity occurred.
During the hearing, attorneys mentioned that the investigator for the State Board of Elections spent several days in Bladen County, "investigating the absentee ballots and other things that we are not privy to."