Here’s what election fraud really looks like

Here’s what election fraud really looks like

Bladen County, NC, about 150 miles east of Charlotte, in December 2018. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

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The following is the Prologue to The Vote Collectors, excerpted for Axios Charlotte ahead of the book’s Nov. 16, 2021 release.

A blazing pink sky decorates the tops of flat fields along the two-lane road that leads to the town of Tar Heel.

It’s just before seven on a Friday morning in December 2018. The thatch remnants of whatever had been growing in late summer still lean toward the Cape Fear River, two months after Hurricane Florence’s floodwaters receded.

Men in jeans and flannel shirts ache and groan as they climb the steps of Tar Heel Baptist Church for the weekly Friday men’s prayer breakfast. Around the low-ceilinged fellowship hall are thirty-five men of different races and political persuasions, bonding over sunrise, prayers, and bags of Hardee’s.

“Ham biscuits on the right,” one says, “sausage on the left.”

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They talk quietly. They give firm handshakes and a few hugs. They are Black and white and Latino. They’ve been through hell with the hurricanes lately. Some lost their entire fall crop. Some might soon lose a farm. On top of that misery, they’ve been made fun of all over the world.

Tar Heel, population 150, holds two distinctions: its name matches the nickname and logo of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, 115 miles to the northwest; and it’s the home of the Smithfield packing plant, the world’s largest hog-processing operation.

But over these few weeks in December 2018, reporters from New York and Washington have rented cars and come here to ask questions about the door-to-door ballot-collection program that upended the midterm election.

It’s big news elsewhere, for whatever reason small-town shit becomes big news. A congressional race got held up. Dan McCready, the boyish-looking Democrat, got close to turning a very red district blue for the first time in almost four decades. He’d lost to Mark Harris, the preacher with the good hair, by less than a thousand votes.

But a month after Election Day — the week after Thanksgiving — the state board of elections said it couldn’t certify the race because something was crooked with the ballots of Bladen. They said it had been going on for years and that now, after such a close election, it had to stop.

That was about a week before the prayer breakfast in the fellowship hall. In the days between, people in suits used the scandal to point fingers at other people in suits, to justify whatever political beliefs they have. The president hadn’t done them any favors, tweeting out lies about Democrats and voter fraud and immigrants who cast ballots illegally.

Now some people on his own side were caught, which would be bad enough even if it didn’t mean that all the left-leaning media organizations in the Western Hemisphere were hitching their assumptions to the story and using it as a reason to say, “See, Republicans are the cheaters!”

Stephen Colbert even devoted four minutes of his monologue to the scandal around the door-to-door ballot collections here.

“They’re like Jehovah’s-I-hope-there-aren’t-witnesses,” Colbert said.

The men in the church are tired of it. Y’all didn’t give a damn, they keep saying to outsiders, when the chemical company an hour north contaminated the drinking water.

Didn’t give a damn when water rose to the roofs of homes and businesses in the county seat during Hurricane Florence.

But now here they were, these people from all over, giving a damn about Bladen County, North Carolina, chasing down a few scribbles on ballots and saying it’s the home of the biggest political story outside the Beltway.

Where, they wonder, have y’all been?

McCrae Dowless Getty Images

McCrae Dowless sits in his kitchen in Bladenboro, NC. The Vote Collectors includes the only extensive on-the-record interviews with the operative at the center of the 2018 controversy. Photo: Justin Kase Conder for The Washington Post via Getty Images

★★★

To understand how election fraud happens, and how a small place like Bladen County became a siren of a fracturing democracy years ahead of the 2020 election and violent attempts to overturn it, you can’t make simple assumptions.

You have to understand how big-city prejudices about race and class can be flipped upside down in places like this. You have to understand that it’s a story about nothing and everything. You have to understand the land.

Bladen used to be the ocean floor. Millions of years ago, saltwater waves crashed against the Uwharrie Mountains, about 150 miles inland from the current Atlantic coastline. Over time the sea slipped east and left behind a grainy, sandy soil, ripe for peanuts and soybeans and longleaf pines. It left behind the coastal plain, the region of flatlands where Bladen County sits.

The ocean tells the story of the past, but also the future. A series of devastating floods have amounted to the ocean’s way of saying it wants to reclaim some of what it left behind.

Already some places have conceded.

Way out on North Carolina’s eastern elbow, the last three residents of the once-thriving maritime port Portsmouth Island left in the 1970s, mostly in response to a series of hurricanes. The only occupants left in the village now are the mosquitoes and biting flies. The federal government turned Portsmouth into a national park, with some of the softest sand you’ll ever encounter, and the park staff keeps up maintenance on a few cottages, an old church, and the post office. They stand there neatly still today, as if their occupants will be right back.

The closer you look at the flood maps and predictions, the more you wonder if places like Bladen County are next.

What was a county with 35,000 inhabitants in 2010 now had only slightly more than 30,000 in 2020.

The first European settlers who survived in North America called Bladen the Mother County, and its original boundaries stretched from these flatlands near the Atlantic Ocean all the way west to the sandstone tips of the Great Smoky Mountains. Over time they chopped off sections. It’s now shaped like a low-top boot, and at 874 square miles, it’s the fourth-largest of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Its southeastern toe is only thirty miles from the Atlantic Ocean, and its northwestern heel about seventy.

It is a forgotten stretch of sand and peat.

Poor laborers line up each morning inside the Smithfield packing plant to slaughter 35,000 hogs a day. In the past three years, two of the wettest hurricanes in history have flooded entire towns and put family farms out of business.

The poverty rate is 20 percent, and the median household income of about $32,000 is half the national median.

The population decline can be traced to any number of underlying causes, as some depart to find employment, others to leave flooded-out houses, others on the solemn wings of an opioid overdose.

These are the table settings for the small-scale fraud that fudged the result of a congressional race. They are the foundation for the distrust that led not just to the Ninth Congressional District mess, but to the years-long preoccupation with election fraud that led to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in 2021.

Perhaps the most worrisome thing about what happened here in 2018 is how unworried most locals were about it. Fraud, to many people in Bladen County, was just a fact of democratic life. Hoax or be hoaxed.

Bladen is not alone, though. It is a most accurate representation of eastern North Carolina and of the rural South. It’s a place most people come to know only because they pass through it on the way to the beach, or when someone’s in trouble. It is a series of rivers pushing into the vast and low stretch of land like fingers deep in a glove.

Water defines life here. Most of the rivers spill into a network of estuaries, which are bodies of mixed water — the freshwater from the rivers rushing along the surface while the saltwater from the sea scrapes the bottom, density working as the dividing line.

The estuaries breed the most diverse marsh classroom: egrets and heron, shrimp and oysters, striped bass and red snapper, sea turtles and snakes, dragonflies and fire ants, red wolves and black bears. The eastern North Carolina watershed reminds us of the order of a world without politics.

But it can also be an exact reminder of the order of politics. A predator in one situation can, in another, become prey.

Bladen County, NC

Bladen County, NC, in December 2018. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

★★★

We love this place.

Nick grew up about thirty minutes from Bladen in Hope Mills, a town in the Sandhills known mostly as a bedroom community for Fort Bragg, the largest military installation in the country. Nick’s father was a Special Forces soldier, a Green Beret who was killed in 2005 by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

Nick was just a teenager when three men in Class A uniforms came to his home to deliver the news. He spent the next several years of his life trying to understand the why and how. He’s devoted his career as a television reporter to trying to make things right. The thrust of his job at North Carolina’s oldest television station, WBTV, is to investigate corruption and fraud.

That’s how Nick found himself back in Bladen County in December 2018, knocking on doors about the election fraud scandal there. His connections gave him access to some of the main players. In this book you’ll read stories from McCrae Dowless, who hasn’t done interviews with anyone else, stories that started flowing only after Nick told him he grew up not far from here.

Michael, meanwhile, spent four years working at the Fayetteville Observer during the heart of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He was, as it happens, a reporter at the paper when Nick’s father died. Michael’s covered eastern North Carolina extensively since then, from stories about wildlife to longform pieces about the rural healthcare crisis. Michael’s father was a charter fisherman and crabber, and the way of life in eastern North Carolina reminds him of where he grew up.

Over the course of our work in Bladen County, we’ve found ourselves reporting not just as observers but also sometimes as participants. For those reasons, you’ll see that from time to time we become characters in this book. Nick, mostly. In some of the strangest moments, Nick would receive a press release or call saying McCrae Dowless was being charged with a crime. Nick would call McCrae’s number and find out the cops hadn’t shown up yet — McCrae didn’t even know they were coming.

In some ways, those encounters were metaphors for the overall story of Bladen County, a place that’s often a little bit behind.

Because if Bladen County is the Mother County, it is more of a guiding light than an annoying flicker. We shouldn’t dismiss the election fraud that happened here as an outlier but recognize it as an early-stage disease.

And given that the person at the center of that disease, a low-budget operative named McCrae Dowless, has worked for both political parties in his career, we shouldn’t treat it as a Democrat disease or a Republican disease: it’s an American disease. And Bladen County is an indicator.

Food worker's prayer outside of Dove's Barbecue in Bladenboro, NC

Food worker’s prayer outside of Dove’s Barbecue in Bladenboro, NC. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

★★★

Bladen gave birth to the state’s most prominent Black family, the Spauldings, who went on to start Black Wall Street in Durham. And from that family came one of the most important Black politicians of all time, George Henry White.

Born in a rickety house in a swamp along the Bladen-Columbus county line, White served in Congress from 1897 to 1901. He was the last Black congressman before Jim Crow laws truly took effect, the last Black congressman in the United States for a generation, and the last Black congressman in North Carolina for ninety years.

In this book we draw clear connections between White’s years in Congress and the 2018 election. The 1898 campaign that drove him from office and the campaign of 2018 are merely distant cousins, separated by only two generations and 120 years of racism in rural politics.

Like most of the country’s issues with race, this story is one of fits and starts, progress and retaliation.

So we split the book into three parts:

  • Part 1 builds toward the 2018 election through the main characters on the Republican side, particularly McCrae Dowless and Mark Harris, and shows how they became the defendants in the case of Democracy v. Bladen County. This part explains how the election was part of a white backlash to the election of a Black sheriff eight years earlier.
  • Part 2 tells the history of race in eastern North Carolina through its defining Black characters. George Henry White, for sure. But also an aging schoolteacher named Delilah Blanks, civil rights attorney Irving Joyner, and other modern civil rights activists who in the late 1990s built the Black political powerhouse that resulted in the white backlash of the 2010s.
  • And part 3 brings the stories together in the winter of 2018, when all of Bladen County, Black and white, rich and poor, became lumped together as one, under searing and unforgiving national attention that simply made them out to be jokes of the backwoods.

    What those stories all missed, of course, is that what happened in Bladen County could happen in any community where desperation rules. In any place where white people confuse race with power, and where Black people want power for their race.

    In any place where the rivers are rising higher and higher each fall with every named storm, where entire neighborhoods sit empty and rotting, where the small family farmers sold out to the middle-man farmers who sold out to the industrial farmers who sold out to foreign investors.

    collard sandwich in Bladen County NC

    Collard sandwich in Bladen County, NC. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

    ★★★

    Most of the men in the church reception hall worked the tobacco fields every summer as a kid, and spent the money they made on new coveralls to wear to school each fall.

    When consumers finally came to believe warnings about the links between tobacco and cancer in the 1980s and 1990s, Bladen County’s cash crop became worthless. The people here had to come up with another way to make a living. They turned to pork.

    Today there are twenty-nine hogs for every person in Bladen County.

    “This nation has forgotten where their food comes from,” Colon Roberts, a farmer at the prayer breakfast, tells Michael. Roberts raises chickens and cows. His parents grow peanuts and cotton and corn. They’re in their seventies, and they’ve lost all of their savings in the past three years, thanks to crop losses from floods related to Hurricanes Matthew and Florence.

    These people who believe they have little to no say in Washington politics instead spend all their energy on local political races — sheriff, county commission, even the Soil and Water Conservation Board. Meanwhile, congressional candidates keep doing whatever it is congressional candidates do.

    They’ve bickered in their quest to top their neighbors in local politics, sure, but they never thought it was more than punching a hole in the wall of their own house.

    Yes, they knew that after the church breakfasts break up, the Black men in the room would rally around Black candidates, and the white men in the room would rally around white candidates. That’s how it is. Yes, they knew that the sheriff’s office wielded more power than any sheriff should. Yes, they knew McCrae Dowless was crooked long before he was on the front page of every major paper.

    But they don’t believe those things define them.

    At the end of the breakfast the men at Tar Heel Baptist Church pass around an offering plate. They collect $158, mostly in singles, fives, and change. They plan to donate all of it to a local drug abuse and rehabilitation center.

    “One bad man don’t make a county,” Roberts, the chicken and beef farmer, tells Michael. “It’s all the good people. You saw what these men did this morning. They took money out of their pockets and gave it to people hooked on drugs.”

    The visiting pastor gives a fifteen-minute sermon at the meeting, a message of positivity and hard work and resilience.

    He tells the men that their mission for the month is to “go throughout Bladen County and tell people that God loves them.”

    Much of the coverage of the scandal turned Bladen County into the land of hicks and hillbillies, druggies and dolts. Attention spans being short, national audiences distilled the ordeal into good guys and bad guys, with no villain more evil than McCrae Dowless.

    His portrait became the face of election tampering. Democrats, especially, turned him into a meme of rural life, a skinny and conniving white, rural Republican in the Trump era. In this book, we’ll show that McCrae Dowless couldn’t care less about Donald Trump. We’ll show that he’s merely the only one prosecuted in a much larger system of corruption, a fall guy for a country that struggled to acknowledge its racist past and the role of big-money politics in exacerbating inequities.

    He’s not completely innocent. He’s also not solely guilty. He was mostly the next man up in a system that rewards people for hauling votes, at whatever cost, for the people who hold the cash.

    ★★★

    From THE VOTE COLLECTORS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE SCAMSTERS, POLITICIANS, AND PREACHERS BEHIND THE NATION’S GREATEST ELECTORAL FRAUD by Michael Graff and Nick Ochsner. Copyright © 2021 by Michael Graff and Nick Ochsner. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. www.uncpress.org

    For more, order your copy of The Vote Collectors. It’s available wherever books are sold, including at Park Road Books in Charlotte and Main Street Books in Davidson. And through UNC Press or Amazon.

     

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