OPED: These election pros spotted fraud in N.C.

Ned Barnett
The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer
The entrance to vote at the Herbert Young Community Center polling place in Cary, N.C., on November 6, 2012. The State's 13 congressional districts will remain in place and so will the November 6, 2018, election, a federal three-judge panel ruled on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. (Shawn Rocco/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

What appears to be brazen absentee ballot fraud in Bladen County, N.C., involving the 9th Congressional District race mirrors a pattern seen repeatedly in past elections in other North Carolina counties, according to two former state elections officials.

Gary Bartlett, who served as executive director of the State Board of Elections from 1993 to 2013, and Marshall Tutor, a former lead investigator of the board from 2003 to March of this year, said they have seen similar manipulations of absentee ballots in other rural counties, but they were unsuccessful in getting local, state and federal law enforcement officials to act on the cases.

“We’ve reported it. We’ve had the (State Bureau of Investigation) turn us down,” Bartlett said. “There have been referrals (to local prosecutors) and nothing has been done.”

Bartlett said he referred “more than half a dozen” cases of apparent fraud involving absentee ballots, but no action was taken by law enforcement. “We don’t know what happened on the other end because once we provided the information to state or federal (authorities) we don’t do a thing unless they ask,” he said.

Tutor said he found abuses of absentee ballots involving a 2014 sheriff’s race in Yancey County and could not get the local district attorney, who has since died, to take action.

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“It was rotten to the core on absentee ballot and vote buying, people getting drugs for votes and that kind of thing,” Tutor said of the county located in the Appalachian mountains along the Tennessee border. “That campaign was rife with with absentee ballot fraud and I couldn’t get the D.A. to do anything about it.”

Robeson County, a neighbor to Bladen County along the state’s southern border, is also under review for voting irregularities involving absentee ballots in this election in the 9th Congressional District race. Those problems are familiar to Tutor.

“Robeson County has never been anything but an absolute nightmare. We were never able to get the prior DA to do anything,” he said.

Bartlett said he referred alleged absentee fraud cases for investigation in Yancey, Bladen, Robeson, Mitchell, Swain and Columbus counties without action being taken. He said state and federal law enforcement officers have been aggressive in prosecuting violations of elections laws by officials, such as former state Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, House Speaker Jim Black and state Rep. Thomas Wright, “but if it’s on a lower level, it may get handled and it may not.”

The pattern of passing over absentee ballot problems in Bladen County ended when problems arose in the 2016 election. Bladen County District Attorney Jon David asked Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, as the prosecutor for the state capital’s county, to lead the investigation.

Freeman’s office, along with state and federal investigators, has been investigating Bladen County voting fraud for more than a year. She said the investigation was unlikely to expand into counties where similar absentee ballot abuses have been alleged in the past.

Bartlett said the abuse of absentee ballots usually follows this pattern: A team of two targets elderly or low-income voters and has them apply for an absentee ballot. Once the ballot arrives, they may help the voters fill it out. They sign as the two necessary witnesses and offer to mail it. If the voter marks a choice that’s not the team’s candidate, it’s not mailed.

Now the pattern Bartlett and Tutor so often cited in vain has become national news in a congressional election and, for North Carolina, a national embarrassment.

“I’m sad there was not a resolution sooner,” Bartlett said. “The best way to keep things like this from happening is to have some type of prosecution. If they are guilty, allow the rules that are on the books to be utilized.”