In the back office of the only liquor store within 30 miles of this low-lying town in eastern North Carolina, behind a window where he can see out better than customers can see in, Mark Gillespie was paying bills. “They never stop,” the manager of the ABC Store said. He looked up occasionally to see who was coming in: friends and family, coaches from the Dixie Youth Baseball league program he runs, parents of the Boy Scout troop he oversees. They’re the reason, he said, he had to be careful with his words when I asked about his county’s new status as the epicenter of election fraud in the United States. “I’m just mad about the whole thing,” the former county commissioner told me. “It really is embarrassing for my county, my little tiny county, to be on national news. Where I grew up at and call home.”
In the two weeks since Thanksgiving, Bladen County has been the focus of investigations into irregularities in the race to represent North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. Specifically, how did the Republican, Mark Harris, win 61 percent of the absentee-by-mail votes when Republican voters requested only 19 percent of all absentee ballots? How did he manage to win the county at all, given the fact that it has three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans?
The numbers are close enough to jeopardize Harris’ apparent 905-vote victory over Democrat Dan McCready and might even force a redo of the election. That a small-scale fraud in a rural county of only 35,000 people could have fudged the result of one of the most watched congressional races in the country is a reminder once again of the outside influence of economically-left-behind places like Bladen County, where the poverty rate is 20 percent and the median household income of $32,396 is about half the national median.