There have been complaints about absentee ballot milling in Bladen County that pre-date the 2018 allegations against McCrae Dowless. But what isn’t widely known about — nor reported on much — is how this long-running scandal also implicates Democrats.
A 2010 story by a Wilmington-based TV station profiled “the biggest player of all in the Bladen GOTV arena. It’s called the Bladen County Improvement Association (BCIA), and it’s been operating for at least 30 years.”
The story noted the BCIA had many high-profile Democratic party contributors, including former US Senator Kay Hagan. Members of the community, the news outlet reported, were “starting to question the motives and tactics” of the secretive group, who were said to give out sample ballots in the previous election cycle that were pre-filled out with the names of their regular contributors.
Fast forward to 2012 when an election protest form was filed against members of this Democratic PAC by…another Democrat. Robert Brooks was a candidate for the county commission, and he questioned witness signatures on some of the absentee ballots submitted for the May primary. Among the signatures he questioned were some by Horace Munn, who was (and still is) president of the BCIA.
Brooks also alleged some absentee ballot voters were promised compensation for their votes and that in other instances family members were filling out absentee ballots for other family members without them knowing about it.
Another protest was filed over this primary by another Democrat running for office. Matthew Dixon ran for state house district 22.
North State Journal writer A.P. Dillon wrote about these formal protests at her site in 2016. She noted the allegations were almost a mirror image of what Brooks alleged had happened in his own primary race.
Both claims were ultimately dismissed on insufficient evidence grounds, but in light of the 2016 and 2018 allegations of absentee ballot milling, people began to wonder if the 2012 claims should have been taken more seriously.
In 2016 during the governor’s race between Gov. McCrory and then-AG Roy Cooper, a protest was filed in Bladen questioning several hundred absentee ballots. What was alleged was a “massive scheme to run an absentee ballot mill involving hundreds of ballots, perpetrated by and through the BCIA PAC.”
The protest was filed by Dowless. He ran for — and won — the non-partisan race for Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor and filed his protest the day before election day.
Several of the names of those alleged to have committed wrongdoing in his protest were also in the 2012 Brooks and Dixon protests. The allegations, too, were similar to the ones from 2012. Both referenced members of the BCIA PAC.
Like the 2012 complaints, the Dowless protest was dismissed due to insufficient evidence, but Dowless implicated himself in the process, which put him more prominently on the Board of Election’s radar.
However, it also put the BCIA in their sights, too.
We heard next to nothing about this Democratic PAC after that until December 2018. Then, two Charlotte news stations reported on questionable activities the BCIA are alleged to have engaged in in 2018 that would be considered illegal under state law. The allegations included witness signature violations, workers filling out absentee ballots for voters after ballots were sealed, and workers collecting and turning in ballots.
Also not widely known is that Dowless himself was a longtime Democrat until 2016 and, according to the New York Times, he was “courted by Democrats & Republicans alike” to do work for their campaigns. In fact, half of his client list consists of Democrats.
While it’s not known how far back Dowless’s alleged absentee ballot milling machine ran, what’s clear he was an equal opportunity “vote-getter” for candidates in both parties. Furthermore, it’s clear he and the Democratic BCIA operated in competition with each other for absentee by mail voters. Also, witnesses have been willing to go on the record with broadcast media outlets detailing suspicious activities by both that, if shown to be true, violate state law.
Everyone can agree the voters of Bladen County deserve better than the likes of Dowless. What everyone can’t seem to agree on, however, is how they also deserve better than the likes of the BCIA.
Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that the BCIA’s largest contributor to date has been the NC Democratic Party.
To put it charitably, the Raleigh-area political media hasn’t been as aggressive in reporting on scandals involving Democrats and their affiliated groups over the years. The national outrage over the revelations about the widespread absentee ballot milling schemes that have plagued Bladen County will, hopefully, change that.
Stacey Matthews is a veteran blogger who has also written under the pseudonym Sister Toldjah and is a regular contributor to Red State and Legal Insurrection.