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By Erin Smith

Concerned voters gathered at the First Baptist Church of Bladenboro on Tuesday night for a Town Hall meeting to discuss the voting irregularities that have been uncovered in recent weeks. Some voters chose to share their stories regarding encounters with individuals concerning absentee ballots.

Cetire Retamar, of Bladenboro, said she has never voted by absentee ballot but rather has always voted in-person. This year, Retamar said she received an absentee ballot in the mail without requesting one. She said she showed it to her son and they decided not to fill it out, but rather to take it with her to the polling location to use as a sample ballot.

“When I got to the poll building, the poll worker told me I couldn’t take it in with me. She told me to give it to her and she would take care of it,” said Retamar.

She said she did not know what happened to the absentee ballot after that. Retamar said she never at any time requested a absentee ballot and did not know why one was mailed to her. Retamar said her granddaughter, who no longer resides in Bladen County, also received an absentee ballot in the mail. Retamar said her granddaughter did not request one either so she threw that ballot in the trash.

Allison Riggs with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice responded that the ballot should have been marked as spoiled and turned over to the Board of Elections.

Retamar said she feels the only fair way to resolve the problem is for the State to conduct another election.

Linda Baldwin of Ammon also shared her story. She asked Bladen County Commissioner Michael Cogdell and Jerry Withrow to stand with her as she gave her account.

“In the 2016 election, I had a young man to come to my home. He told me that he was a college student and that he was getting paid for getting people to fill out absentee ballots. As a retired educator, I agreed to fill out the ballots to assist the young man and campaign. In fact. I filled one for my two sons, my daughter and myself,” said Baldwin.

She continued that the young man told her he had to have a witness so he would have to take the unsealed ballots with him for someone to sign. Baldwin said the young man assured her he would bring them back for her to see they had been signed and sealed. She said he never returned.

“That is when I called Mr. Cogdell and I asked Mr. Cogdell, ‘What should I do?’ He told me what to do,” said Baldwin.

She said she reached out to the Board of Elections and submitted the requested information and very little was done.

Hakeem Brown, who was a candidate in the 2018 Bladen County Sheriff’s Race also spoke. “As the young democratic candidate for Sheriff, I’m a little bitter tonight but I still have a song.”

He continued, “It’s one thing to lose when it is fairly done. But its another thing to lose when it is unjust.”

Brown said he would  like to see justice done.

Bladen County Commissioner Mike Cogdell shared a story about Ms. Cromartie who is 87 years old. Commissioner Cogdell said she received an absentee ballot and had someone come to her home and collect the ballot.

Commissioner Cogdell said when Ms. Cromartie followed up with the Bladen County Board of Elections the ballot had not been turned in. He said he helped Ms. Cromartie prepare a complaint and he turned it in to the local Board of Elections and also to the State Board of Elections in Raleigh. Three days after the complaint was filed, the ballots were returned to her home, according to Commissioner Cogdell.

Billy Ward, who has campaigned for the seat of Bladen County Sheriff, made a statement. He said, “I do not compromise my ethics. We know this has been going on for many, many years. I even wonder now about the campaigns in 2010 and wonder about what happened to me.”

Rev. Larry Hayes with Good News Baptist Church asked, “What are we going to do about our Sheriff?”

He stated he supported Prentis Benston when he served as Sheriff and he supported Hakeem Brown when he campaigned for election.

“In the primary that young man won more votes than McVicker did. In the general election, he lost,” said Rev. Hayes.

He also asked if anyone had checked the military mail-in absentee ballots to see if they were all accounted for or if any of those ballots are also missing.

Voters Encouraged to Share Stories

“Since 2010 residents in Bladen County have been telling a very strange story of how their votes, their impact and their power has been denied in some very peculiar ways,” said Marcus Bass with the NC Black Alliance.

He opened the meeting and welcomed those in attendance. Bass explained there once was a time period in history when a person could tell if their treatment was based on their race. Bass explained that in the case of the votes in the 9th District, some people were being denied their right to participate.

An unusual number of mail-in absentee ballot requests were made in Bladen and Robeson counties during the recent election, according to Bass. In the 2018 election, 3,404 absentee ballots were never returned to the Board of Elections in both Bladen and Robeson counties.

Pastor of First Baptist Church in Bladenboro Gregory Taylor gave the invocation and made opening remarks.

“Four years ago Bladenboro and Bladen County made the news for the death of Lennon Lacey,” said Pastor Taylor.

He explained now, four years later, Bladen County is in the news again only this time it for election irregularities.

“This has been going on for a long time, but they just got caught,” said Pastor Taylor.

He continued, “We are here for justice. We want another election.”

Pastor Taylor told those gathered Governor Roy Coper vetoed a bill adopted by the legislature because “it didn’t benefit us.” He said it had language in it pertaining to campaign finances that would only allow for an investigation to go back a limited number of years.

He encouraged voters not to be discouraged because the same thing is occurring in Gaston County, Florida.

Next to speak was Allison Riggs who is an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. She presented an overview of the investigation to those gathered. She said people who have been identified as persons of interest by the NC State Board of Elections and Ethics are Leslie McCrae Dowless, Red Dome Group and Mark Harris.

The Red Dome Group is a political consulting firm from Charlotte, according to Riggs.

She explained that on election night, Republican candidate for the 9th District US House race, Mark Harris, won only Union and Bladen counties. Per news reports, Harris is said to have hired McCrae Dowless, said Riggs.

In the 2016 election cycle, Mark Harris ran in Primary Election against Rep. Robert Pittenger and lost.

In December 2016, Dowless was referred to state and federal prosecutors and no action has been taken yet, said Riggs.

“How did we find out there was a problem? The Republican performance didn’t make sense based on the demographics,” said Riggs.

She said after reviewing the results, it was learned that 358 absentee ballots were missing and the voter did not vote with other means available. Riggs also said that a high concentration of missing absentee ballots were found in Bladen County in the Bethel precinct and Bladenboro 1 and 2 precincts and some were missing from the Elizabethtown 1 precinct, as well.

Riggs also said there was a racial disparity in the missing ballots and there is the potential some of absentee ballots returned may have been altered.

She encouraged anyone who was approached regarding their absentee ballots to share their story with the State Board of Elections in Raleigh and to support the criminal investigation.

Riggs told those gathered this type of investigation should have ocurred following the 2016 election.

“Why aren’t these prosecutors going after people stealing our votes?” asked Riggs.

The North Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NC NAACP) President Rev. Anthony Spearman also spoke about the impact. He reminded those present about how Rev. Taylor reached out to the NC NAACP regarding the death of Lennon Lacy. He noted that Lacy’s death ocurred on the 59th anniversary of the lynching of Emmett Till who allegedly glared at an older white woman.

“The Lacy case is a cold case now,” said Rev. Spearman.

He also stated the “stealing” of votes needs to be investigated. Rev. Spearman encouraged those in attendance to encourage their neighbors, friends and relatives who were approached by individuals regarding their absentee ballots to report it to the State Board of Elections.

Courtney Patterson, Chairman of Blueprint North Carolina and Just Florence Recovery, was working in eastern North Carolina prior to Hurricane Florence doing civic engagement work and after a discussion, decided getting supplies and providing relief for people would be a priority once news of Hurricane Florence pending impact started being announced. Patterson said it was decided asking people to vote and registering people to vote, was not going to help the region after the storm had passed. Patterson said Just Florence Recovery sent 50 trucks of hurricane and relief supplies into the area impacted by storm.

Patterson then addressed the voter situation. “The most useful thing we have done is go to the General Assembly to talk to them about what the State is doing,” said Patterson.

He added his group, Blueprint North Carolina, will be appealing to the General Assembly regarding “vote harvesting.” Patterson encouraged anyone who had their vote “harvested” to reach out and share their story.

Tomas Lopez, with Democracy NC, a nonpartisan group, addressed those present.

“People have tried to vote and had their votes taken away. This is a moment for government to be accountable,” said Lopez. “We need a thorough and transparent investigation.”

Lopez said it is particularly concerning the voters being impacted are mainly minority voters. He called for voters to share their stories with election officials.