One night last October, Jerry Ward, 49, was gathered with about a dozen other people at a relative’s house in downtown Bladenboro, a small city of just 1,700 souls in rural North Carolina. Then a young, white woman came to the door, asking about getting people inside to vote early in the upcoming and fiercely contested midterm elections. “It was a whole house full of us and the girl came after dark and she was like saying that we could vote early and we was about to fill in them papers but we didn’t. She said, ‘I’ll fill them out for you’,” said Ward who, like the other voters quoted in this story, is African American. The comment raised suspicions among those gathered, not least because in North Carolina, like much of the rural south, memories still linger about the fight for voting rights for black residents – and the equally fierce fight to resist them.
The group decided not to accept the woman’s offer. In the end, Ward voted in person. So did everyone else in the house that night.
They were right to be suspicious. After election day, which saw a narrow win for the Republican candidate, the North Carolina state board of elections announced it would not certify the results in the ninth congressional district in which Bladenboro sits. Within days, it emerged “ballot harvesters” had been hired by a veteran political operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, to pick up absentee ballots in Bladen county, the local news station WSOC-TV reported. Some of those ballots never turned up.
It emerged Dowless worked for the Republican candidate, Mark Harris, who beat his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, by just 905 votes. Shortly after, McCready recanted his concession of the contest.