‘This thing has been going on for a long time.’ Voters discuss fraud allegations in NC.

About 200 people packed First Baptist Church of Bladenboro on Tuesday night to talk about what went wrong during November’s election, specifically how there came to be so many mail-in ballots requested but not submitted for the vote count.

Concerned voters came from as far away as Mecklenburg County. A Republican political candidate from years past traveled from his new home in Nevada to express support for the voters of Bladen County in their quest to make sure their ballots were not manipulated.

Voters were invited to share their stories and receive help from the organizers of the event, which included the North Carolina NAACP and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. The sanctuary was standing room only. The mood was optimistic, and the room was sometimes song-filled, almost joyous.

Allegations that a Bladen County political operative hired people to illegally gather absentee ballots have thrown several political races into limbo — most prominently the contest for Congressional District 9, where Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. The state board of elections has twice declined to certify the race. An evidentiary hearing is scheduled for Jan. 11.

But Congressional District 9 was far from the only contest that concerned the Bladen County voters who turned out Tuesday night. Several speakers drew attention to the sheriff’s race. Republican Sheriff Jim McVicker also hired the political operative who has been named a “person of interest” in the state’s investigation, Leslie McCrae Dowless, but the sheriff’s race has been certified.

McVicker’s most recent challenger, Hakeem Brown, addressed the crowd.

“As the young Democrat candidate for Bladen County sheriff, I’m a little bitter tonight,” Brown said.

“It’s one thing to lose when it’s fairly done,” he said. “But it’s another thing to lose when (something) unjust is done.”

Another of McVicker’s former opponents, Republican Billy Ward, said he was concerned about how lapses in ethics affect public trust in law enforcement. Speakers emphasized that there have been questions about absentee ballots in Bladen County that go back years.

“I told my congregation Sunday, this thing has been going on for a long time,” said the Rev. Gregory D. Taylor. “This thing has been going on for a long time, but they finally got caught.”

Linda Baldwin, of Ammon, recounted a story from the 2016 election cycle. A young man who described himself as a college student came to her door and explained that he was getting paid to have people fill out absentee ballots. Baldwin, as a retired educator, agreed to help him, she said.

“The young man told me he would have to have a witness, so he would have to take an unsealed ballot with him for someone to sign,” she said. “He told me that he would return in a couple of days with the ballots. He never returned.”

Baldwin said that she appealed to the board of elections for help, but that very little was done.

The Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the state NAACP, put the recent allegations in the context of the long history of lynching and voter suppression in the United States.

“Harvesting is the fancy term they use for stealing,” Spearman said.

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Carli Brosseau is a reporter at The News & Observer who often analyzes databases as part of her work. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.