Politics & Government

NC alerted US attorney of ‘efforts to manipulate’ Bladen elections, 2017 letter shows

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The North Carolina elections board alerted the U.S. Justice Department shortly after the 2016 election about suspected efforts to “manipulate elections results through the absentee ballot process” in Bladen County, according to a letter obtained by McClatchy.

The news comes a day after the North Carolina GOP amplified accusations that the N.C. elections board didn’t properly handle complaints about Bladen County ballots in 2016.

The letter, dated Jan. 30, 2017, was sent by elections board director Kim Strach to John Bruce, who at the time was U.S. attorney in the eastern district of North Carolina.

Strach wrote the board’s team investigated allegations of voter fraud in Bladen County and found evidence suggesting that “individuals and potentially groups of individuals engaged in efforts to manipulate election results through the absentee ballot process. The evidence we have obtained suggest that these efforts may have taken place in the past and if not addressed will likely continue for future elections.”

The letter continues: “Since the 2016 general election ballot included federal elections, the State Board of Elections voted unanimously to refer these matters to your office.”

It’s unclear how the Justice Department responded, but no one has been prosecuted and now the 2018 elections are under scrutiny.

The N.C. elections board has declined to certify the results of the 9th Congressional District race between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready because of voting irregularities with absentee by-mail ballots in Bladen County. Voters in both Bladen and Robeson counties have told The News & Observer their ballots were collected, which would be a violation of the law.

Harris has about 900 more votes than McCready, according to uncertified tallies by the NC elections board. It’s unclear how many ballots are in question. An evidentiary hearing is scheduled for Jan. 11 in Raleigh.

The state elections board has come under scrutiny by Republicans who say the board hasn’t been transparent and allege that the board didn’t do enough to prevent fraud in this year’s elections.

Bruce, who received the letter, was the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District from January 2016 until October 2017, when Robert Higdon was confirmed.

Bruce now works for the N.C. elections board as deputy general counsel for investigations earning a salary of $90,780 a year. He started work there on June 14.

But Bruce “cannot comment on this matter,” Pat Gannon, a spokesman for the board, said in an email message to McClatchy.

“After an attorney leaves the United States Department of Justice, he/she may not discuss confidential information learned while with DOJ,” Gannon said.

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Criticism of the board

The day before Strach’s 2017 letter emerged, the chairman of the Bladen County Republican Party criticized the NC elections board for failing to stop absentee ballot abuse in this year’s election.

Walter McDuffie, the Bladen GOP leader, also acknowledged hiring McCrae Dowless, the political operative from Bladen County who also worked for Harris through a consulting firm, Red Dome. But McDuffie said he wouldn’t have hired him if he’d known more about Dowless’ alleged activities.

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the NC GOP, said Wednesday that Republican efforts to strip the NC election board’s power to investigate the 9th district problems and create a new task force would be “underscored” if evidence showed the current board didn’t properly handle complaints from 2016.

Staff writer Will Doran contributed to this report.
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