Protested election in Bladen County is a reminder of past troubles

By Ben Rappaport 

An election dispute following the March primary highlights ongoing criticism of the electoral process in Bladen County, which made national headlines six years ago amid ballot-harvesting accusations.      

The Rev. Keith Graham lost the Democratic primary for the Bladen County Board of Commissioners’ District 1 seat by 31 votes on March 5. He filed an election protest, calling for a new election and alleging that voters did not have access to the correct ballots for nearly two hours at two precincts. 

The Bladen County Board of Elections confirmed the ballot issues when it took up Graham’s appeal last month, but its members voted 4-1 to reject the protest. Most said the impact of the ballot mishap was minimal and “the full extent of how many voters were impacted is unknown.” 

Sign up for the Border Belt Independent’s free weekly newsletter.

Graham appealed the local decision to the N.C. State Board of Elections, which also voted 4-1 on Thursday to dismiss the protest. The ruling paves the way for incumbent Commissioner Ophelia Munn-Goins to be sworn in for a third term on Bladen’s Board of Commissioners. 

But the situation didn’t sit well with Patsy Sheppard, the Bladen elections board member who cast the lone vote in favor of Graham’s protest. 

“We’ve never had an election that was this fraught with mistakes,” Sheppard, a Democrat who has served on the board since 2019, told the Border Belt Independent. “It was like a perfect storm of errors and really became a mess.”

In 2018, Bladen County became the focus of a ballot-harvesting investigation in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district. Mark Harris, a Mecklenburg County preacher, claimed victory in the race, but the election was overturned. McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County political operative, faced voter fraud charges but died in 2022 before his case went to trial. Harris was not charged, and he won the Republican primary for the 8th congressional district in March.

The case drew widespread media attention and was highlighted in a New York Times podcast called “The Improvement Association.” 

Sheppard said she believed the county board’s resistance to taking up Graham’s appeal was tainted by the past. “I think that history played a big role in the desire to sort of sweep it under the rug and get rid of it,” she said.  

In the state board’s hearing, Graham was represented by Katelin Kaiser, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a nonprofit based in Durham. Kaiser said the county board failed to consider all the facts of the case and was too narrow in its denial.

“We have documented evidence of voters being disenfranchised in Bladen County,” she told the state board. “These irregularities pass sufficient doubt on the contest for the District 1 seat.” 

Kaiser argued the irregularities likely affected more than 31 voters within the district, which covers northern and central Bladen County — enough to potentially swing the outcome of the election.

Kaiser asked the state board to include two pieces of additional evidence: meeting minutes from the Bladen County Board of Elections’ March 26 meeting and precinct-level voting results. The state board declined to consider these items because it deemed them unnecessary to decide on the appeal. 

The state board also did not see the county’s election audit. Sheppard, who helped with the audit, told the BBI it revealed additional cases where voters used incorrect ballots and problems with poll workers. Sheppard said the county received multiple complaints that poll workers gave unaffiliated voters ballots without asking for their preferred primary.

The BBI requested a copy of the election audit from the Bladen Board of Elections but has not received it. 

State board member Stacy Eggers IV acknowledged that errors occurred in Bladen County on Election Day. He said the county needs to make sure it reports incidents to the state board in a timely fashion when they arise. But he voted to dismiss Graham’s protest. 

“The precedent of this board is not to approve an election appeal unless there is outcome determinative evidence,” Eggers said. “We are not allowed to rest on speculation or conjecture to overcome probable cause standards.”

If the appeal had been successful, the election would have been kicked back to the county board to undergo an evidentiary hearing. During an evidentiary hearing, Kaiser argued, the county board could have further explored the impact of the ballot issues and better understand how many voters were affected. 

Munn-Goins argued that despite the delays, voters were still able to cast their ballots. She said the county board of elections quickly identified the mistakes and worked swiftly to correct them.

“We have to count the voters who voted,” Munn-Goins told the state board. “Not the ones who could’ve, would’ve, should’ve voted.”

Lafayette Atkinson, chair of the Bladen elections board, said the situation was an opportunity to learn and improve. The board has already increased training for poll workers for the upcoming Republican primary runoffs on May 15.

Still, Sheppard said she was disappointed. 

“It is sad that we worked so hard to get past the election fraud case and now here we are,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we can just hide and pretend it didn’t happen.”