ELIZABETHTOWN, NC (WBTV) - Documents obtained by WBTV show elections officials in Bladen County reported irregularities with absentee ballots in the 2010 election, years before similar concerns came to light in 2016 and in recent weeks following the 2018 race.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections has twice voted to not certify the results of the 9th Congressional District race—in which Republican Mark Harris beat Dan McCready by less than 1,000 votes—over ballot irregularities in portions of the district, including Bladen County.
Specifically, investigators with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the NCSBE are probing allegations of impropriety surrounding efforts to promote and collect absentee ballots from voters.
WBTV has identified at least three coordinated efforts surrounding absentee ballots conducted in 2018.
Questions surrounding absentee ballots were the subject of a complaint in 2016 filed by attorneys for then-Governor Pat McCrory, who pointed to the issues in questioning his re-election loss to Roy Cooper.
But WBTV has learned elections officials in Bladen County had sent information regarding questionable absentee ballots six years before that.
The concerns were communicated by then-county board of elections chairman Ray Britt, who is now a Bladen County commissioner, and elections director Larry Hammond.
Specifically, Britt and Hammond were concerned about a set of eight ballots that were cast be voters who all lived in the same nursing home, some of whom, notes on the materials sent to state investigators show, had never voted before.
According to notes on some of the material sent from the county to state investigators, some of the eight voters who cast absentee ballots from the nursing home in 2010 had never previously voted or even been registered.
Britt said the state took steps to gather evidence from the county board but never took action to investigate further.
In fact, Britt said, then-state elections director Gary Bartlett denied ever receiving a complaint.
“He was aware of the eight ballots,” Britt said. “And he was in a meeting when I was in a meeting with the state board—his full staff and our staff—and the state investigator denied that there had been an inquiry from the Bladen County Board of Elections.”
Britt said he believes the current controversy surrounding absentee voting in the county could have been avoided had investigators acted on his complaints in 2010.
“You’re being held accountable to your surrounding community when your hand is tied and all you can do is report what you see,” Britt said.
Materials outlining the irregularities are still in an envelope inside a vault at the Bladen BoE office.
The materials include fax cover sheets showing transmissions to an investigator for the NCSBE and a card for a special agent with the SBI.
There is also an order signed by then-NCSBE Chairman Larry Leake ordering the county board to send materials to the state board.
But no evidence in the enveloped showed that the report was ever acted upon.
A spokesman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections issued the following statement to WBTV in response to questions for this story:
“Mr. Leake and Mr. Tutor are no longer associated with this agency. An investigations division was established within the agency in 2015 and since then has referred findings to state and federal prosecutors including findings in prior cases involving absentee ballot irregularities in Bladen County. All four state board investigators and numerous other state board employees are working on the present investigation into absentee voting irregularities in the 9th Congressional District. It is this agency’s top priority at this time.”