Records point to third coordinated absentee ballot effort in NC District 9

The front door of the Bladen County Board of Elections office.
The front door of the Bladen County Board of Elections office.
Updated: Dec. 6, 2018 at 10:56 PM EST
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ELIZABETHTOWN, NC (WBTV) - Records released by the North Carolina State Board of Elections this week and campaign finance reports point to a third coordinated effort surrounding absentee ballots in the county’s 2018 elections.

Questions about irregularities with absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties have led the NCSBE to not certify the outcome of the 9th Congressional District Race and others. The board will hold an evidentiary hearing in the matter before the end of the year.

A majority of the scrutiny cast in the 2018 race has been focused on McRae Dowless, a Bladen County political operative who worked as a contractor for the Mark Harris campaign.

Harris won the 9th Congressional District contest in November by less than 1,000 votes and also beat incumbent Representative Robert Pittenger in this Republican primary.

But on Tuesday WBTV obtained a page of hand-written notes showing a second scheme to pay people in exchange for collecting unsealed absentee ballots.

Records released by the NCSBE Tuesday night helped paint a picture of a third effort to encourage absentee voting.

A sign-in list of those who dropped off absentee ballot request forms to the Bladen County Board of Elections shows that, in addition to Dowless, at least two other people submitted more than 100 request forms: Michael Cogdell, a Bladen County commission, and Lola Wooten.

The records show Wooten submitted a total of 230 request forms between August 22 and October 30, 2018.

Cogdell submitted 110 in the same time period, the records show, and used different variations of his name when dropping the forms off.

Related: Handwritten notes show efforts to collect absentee ballets in exchange for money in Bladen Co.

A campaign finance report filed by the Bladen Improvement Association PAC show both Cogdell and Wooten were paid by the organization for get out the vote efforts in October 2018. Specificallly, the form lists the expense as “Operating Expense G.O.T.V.”

Wooten was paid a total of $65.00, the report shows, while Cogdell received $40.03.

Wooten did not return a call from a reporter on Wednesday.

Cogdell said he did not want to talk with a reporter when he answered Wednesday morning.

“We’ve been advised not to talk about this because some of the things that have been implied, we’ve been told it’s best to stay out it,” Cogdell said.

Michael Cogdell poses in a picture posted on the Bladen County Board of Commissioners website.
Michael Cogdell poses in a picture posted on the Bladen County Board of Commissioners website.(Credit: Bladen County)

But, when confronted with specific information about the number of absentee ballot request forms he turned in and the payment he received from the PAC, Cogdell continued answering a reporter’s questions.

“I turned in 100 one time to a community organization for the community, for churches and senior citizens. So some young ladies was soliciting those things. And I was working with just myself as and the commission,” Cogdell said.

Cogdell denied that the PAC had any coordinated absentee ballot effort.

“The Bladen Improvement Association did not do the absentee request form," he said. "That association did not do any at all.”

When asked about the campaign finance filing showing he was paid for G.O.T.V., Cogdell said that money was for postage stamps.

“I’m trying to tell you, I did not do any get out the vote,” he said.

Cogdell did not explain why the line-item was listed as a payment for G.O.T.V. and not as a reimbursement for postage, which is a different category of expense on campaign finance forms.

Related: Criminal investigation into voting irregularities has spanned years, new reports in ’18

The PAC’s second quarter campaign report lists a total of 25 people who received payments listed under the same “G.O.T.V.” line-item.

The Bladen County Improvement Association PAC was the subject of a complaint filed in 2016 by lawyers affiliated with then-Governor Pat McCrory on behalf of Dowless, alleging impropriety in the 2016 race for governor.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman confirmed to WBTV on Tuesday that her office began investigating the reported irregularities with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation in January 2017.

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