When I visited Bladen County, N.C., last summer as a first-time candidate for political office — a Democrat running to represent the people of North Carolina’s 9th District in the U.S. Congress — I hosted a town hall in a small church down a country road. The preacher began with a prayer, but it was the people who were there to testify — about how GenX, a potentially harmful and poorly regulated chemical from a nearby chemical plant, had seeped into the drinking water. The state had recently stepped in to limit the chemical’s release, but residents told me they could no longer trust what was coming out of their faucets.
Outside the church, the roadside was littered with downed pine and oak trees, casualties from Hurricane Florence, the second “500 year” flood in two years. Families had yet to receive the federal funding that was promised to help them recover from the first hurricane, let alone the second.
Bladen County is full of patriotic, God-fearing people who have been pushed down by generations of politicians’ neglect. They were very nearly wronged, once again, last fall, by a Republican political operative who ran the largest election fraud operation in recent U.S. history.
As many Americans now know, the operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless — who worked on behalf of my Republican opponent, Mark Harris — employed a team of workers who went door to door, taking people’s absentee ballots and filling in vote choices for them (it was unclear if ballots were thrown in the trash). The workers were desperate for a paycheck. For just a couple of bucks a ballot, Americans were stripped of their right to vote, their voices silenced because of where they lived, whom they preferred in the election or the color of their skin.
It was an outrageous attack on democracy — though hardly the first time it had happened in the county. Yet it is possible to see reasons for hope in the events that followed. Courageous people stood up against the odds and stopped a cycle of corruption in its tracks. Some were supporters of mine, including campaign workers, who helped victims of the fraud speak out. The media also kept up the heat, turning up new details about the endeavor and making it impossible to ignore. Republican members of the State Board of Elections also took seriously their duty to commission a professional investigation. In the end, in a remarkable decision, the board voted unanimously to call for a new election.
It was a wearying experience for everyone involved, me included. The episode revealed our democracy is more fragile than I thought, and it needs protecting. But it also showed we can rise to the challenge.
I had never planned to run for Congress, let alone to become a crusader for voters’ rights. But after the 2016 election, I saw our country being torn apart by politicians who put themselves before the people they were supposed to serve. I felt a calling to run for office, help heal our broken political system and bring people together. It was a tough decision: When I threw my hat in the ring, my wife and I had three little children, with a fourth on the way, and I had a thriving business in solar energy.
The 9th Congressional District was heavily gerrymandered and had been in Republican hands for 55 years. I was a Democrat, but I believed I could flip the seat. In the Marine Corps, where I had begun my career, we had never cared about anyone’s political party, and I felt voters in the district could see past partisanship, once I showed them I would fight for them.
I campaigned for a year and a half on that message: country over party. It was one of the closest, and toughest, campaigns in the country. By Election Day last November, I had left it all on the field — and lost by 905 votes.
Or so I thought. A couple of weeks later, the State Board of Elections shocked me along with the rest of the country by refusing to certify the results of the race; the vice chair of the board made a vague reference to having learned of “unfortunate activities” in the district. My mind immediately went to Bladen County. I had heard allegations during the campaign about absentee ballot fraud there and had been suspicious. It turned out it was much worse than we thought.
I was exhausted after such a grueling campaign, but I felt I needed to help shine a light on the fraud. I was concerned political pressure would mount for the State Board of Elections to certify the race without an investigation into the “unfortunate activities.” Even if the outcome did not change, by pushing for a public hearing on the fraud, I could still do something for the people of Bladen County.
A few of my former campaign staffers sprang into action. They reached out to county residents and found victims of fraud; they produced affidavits in which the victims told their stories of workers coming to the door and collecting their incomplete and unsealed absentee ballots, and they made those stories public. Reporters from all over North Carolina, and across the country, descended on rural Bladen County. A coalition of organizations such as the NAACP held its own town hall in another church — this time, full of news crews.
The corruption did not stop in Bladen County. It ran to the state capital in Raleigh. After the news broke, the state Republican Party — whose executive director had been warned about Dowless’s operation (right after the Republican primary) but encouraged my opponent to use Dowless anyway — attacked the board of elections and blamed Democrats for the fraud. With his party’s support, my opponent sued the State Board of Elections and delayed its investigation.
At the federal level, Republicans did not seem to care about election fraud in North Carolina’s 9th District. It did not fit into their narrative of voter fraud, which mostly involved inventing fictional cases of Democratic voters, particularly members of minority groups, gaming the system. In 2017, the State Board of Elections had uncovered an earlier, similar case involving Dowless and referred the election fraud allegations to the U.S. attorney. But almost a year later, the U.S. attorney had not acted on that finding. Instead, the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney pursued a fishing expedition for illegal immigrant voting. When Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was asked about Bladen County, on Feb. 26, he blamed Democrats. When President Trump was asked, he turned to a conspiracy theory involving a supposed million fraudulent votes in California.
There were people who hoped to sweep the election fraud in North Carolina in 2018 under the rug, just as had happened many times before, just as the area’s many needs had been ignored. But this time turned out differently.
Too much evidence was public. Too many journalists were on the case. The Republican-appointed members of the board of elections, to their credit, did their jobs. In testimony that surprised the country and left my team speechless, my opponent’s son implicated his father on the witness stand, testifying he had repeatedly warned him about Dowless. My opponent, caught withholding evidence and misstating facts, had no other option but to call for a new election. In that incredible 5-to-0 decision, the Republican members of the State Board of Elections voted with the Democrats to hold a new election, and a district attorney soon followed with her first round of indictments.
The limbo after Election Day, the longest three months of my life, had come to an end. I would never know how many ballots my opponent’s campaign stole or threw in the trash, or if I actually won last year’s race. But I felt the people of Bladen County were finally getting justice.
Now that the fraud has been exposed and a new election called, it is tempting to wind down my campaign, to start to make up the time I have missed with my little kids and go back to being just a dad and a businessman again. The campaign has already lasted nearly two years, and the new election will not be held until the fall. That’s because Republicans have given themselves a full do-over: In December, as evidence of fraud was mounting, Republicans in the state legislature started to worry my opponent would not be a strong candidate in a new election. So while publicly demanding he be seated in Congress, they took out an insurance policy: Using the waning days of their veto-proof majority in a lame-duck session, they quietly passed a law requiring a new primary should the State Board of Elections call for a new general election in our race. I considered challenging this law in court — experts say it is probably unconstitutional — but that would just drag out the process even longer, leaving the people without a voice in Congress.
I have come to realize this fight is bigger now than a seat in Congress. It is not just about country over party now, but about the basic protection of voting rights, the cornerstone of democracy. That is a fight worth fighting.
The people of Bladen County are still a long way from having confidence their water is clean and from getting disaster relief, but those things will come, if people get a fair chance to choose their representatives.
When the county’s residents speak out this year, it will not just be at a town hall meeting in a church. It will be at the ballot box. And this time, their votes will count.