The announcement was made on a Tuesday, and it made just a ripple at the time.
The North Carolina board of elections voted unanimously not to certify one of the state’s 13 congressional races, and its vice chair had released a scathing statement that spoke, without specifics, about “unfortunate activities” happening in the part of the state where he lived.
“And I am not going to turn a blind eye to what took place to the best of my understanding, which has been ongoing for a number of years,” he said.
Within a week, the story about the congressional district, North Carolina’s ninth, and the potential widespread election fraud had grown into a national scandal, a lightning rod in the tense and politically charged discussion about the integrity of our elections. The board says it is investigating irregularities around mail-in ballots. Aggressive reporting has turned up more witnesses who have described the beginnings of a ballot-collecting scheme, and helped raise awareness of the issue beyond the partisan rumblings of elected officials.
This is the tale of how old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting and sharp data analysis helped bring the story to national prominence.
Joe Bruno, a 26-year-old television reporter at WSOC 9, an ABC affiliate in Charlotte, said he began following the story Tuesday, though it was far from his network’s typical coverage area.
“Seeing that four Democrats, four Republicans and one unaffiliated member chose to not certify the election told me that, ‘Wow they must have something big,’ ” he said.
On Thursday, Bruno said he was given six affidavits that had been previously submitted to the elections board by various witnesses who spoke about a man named Leslie McCrae Dowless, who was working on the campaign of Republican Mark Harris, who was seeking the open seat held by retiring Democrat Robert Pittenger.
In the affidavit, witnesses spoke about their absentee ballots being collected from them, an illegal practice in the state known as “ballot harvesting.” Only voters, voters’ near relatives or a voter’s legal guardian is legally allowed to drop off an absentee ballot in North Carolina.
The Washington Post also reported the affidavits, interviewing a woman who had told an investigator about a woman who had taken her ballot.
“She said she was there to get older people to vote,” Emma Shipman, 87, said. “She was kind of pushing me to do it.”
Elsewhere, people were starting to look at the voting data that had come out of the district, taking advantage of the state’s relatively accessible and transparent system that makes such data available to the public.
Dr. J. Michael Bitzer, a professor and elections expert at Catawba University in Salisbury, North Carolina, noticed a startling trend as he homed in on information that came out of the Ninth Congressional District.
In Bladen County, one of the nine that make up the district, only 19 percent of mail-in absentee voters were registered Republicans, yet 62 percent of those ballots went the Republican way.
“Where did that 40-plus percent come from?” Bitzer said he wondered, in an interview. Even if every single unaffiliated voter, about 39 percent, he said, had gone Republican, it would have not made up the difference.
“I’ve studied North Carolina politics for 16 years now and I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. “It was not normal.”
Bitzer posted the results on Twitter and his blog, OldNorthStatePolitics.com and they took off. More readers have flocked to the post than any other he has ever written, he said.
The statistics made their way to reports by newspapers such as the Raleigh News & Observer, the New York Times and The Washington Post.
On Friday, Bruno, 26, who is normally assigned to cover the Charlotte City Council and Mecklenburg County Commission, convinced his producers to send him to Bladen County, even though the largely rural area, about a three-hour drive southeast of Charlotte, was far outside the station’s broadcast market.
He traveled to Tar Heel, population 100 or so, to interview Shipman on camera. And he spoke to a man, Stacy Holcomb, who told a similar story about a woman who had collected his ballot, saying that she was wearing a T-shirt with Mark Harris’ name on it. A third witness told him that state investigators had been questioning residents in the area.
“Just boots-on-the-ground reporting,” Bruno said. “I knew that national media was down there, so I was determined not to let anybody out-hustle me. And I wanted to talk to as many people as possible.”
That day, the state election board voted to continue investigating the fraud claims and delay certifying the race. Media figures with large followings, such as Nate Silver, drew attention to the issue on social media.
And the story gained steam over the weekend, with more national outlets such as NPR and the New Yorker giving it coverage. The Raleigh News and Observer reported that for African Americans, 40 percent of requested mail-in ballots were never turned in; for Native Americans, it went up to 60 percent.
Complicating matters on Saturday, the chairman of the election board, a Democrat, announced his resignation after state Republican Party officials criticized him for his political views and pointed to old Twitter posts in which he had been critical of President Donald Trump.
Over the weekend, Bruno said his producer had been sent photocopies of 159 envelopes used to send in absentee ballots, which contain the required two witness signatures, (or one, in the case of a notary) and their addresses, which is required to certify a mail-in ballot in North Carolina. Bruno and his team identified a large overlap between the witnesses listed on the envelopes, finding eight people who had signed repeatedly as witnesses for the ballots, including three who had signed more than 40 ballots.
They set out to find these prolific witnesses on Monday the old-school way: knocking on the doors of homes listed on the ballot envelopes. One landlord told them they’d never even heard of the person. No one answered the door at other addresses. But they found one, Ginger Eason, who explained why she had been listed so many times as a witness.
“I was helping McCrae pick up ballots,” she said in Bruno’s report. She said Dowless had paid her $75 to $100 a week to pick up the ballots.
The story took off. A snippet of the interview that Bitzer posted on Twitter has been viewed some 700,000 times.
On Monday, The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner and Kirk Ross reported that Dowless “oversaw a crew of workers who collected absentee ballots from voters and updated the Harris campaign on the numbers,” based off the account of Jeff Smith, a former friend of Dowless who owns the building where Dowless purportedly ran his command center.
The election board has issued a subpoena to the Harris campaign and is expected to issue one soon to Red Dome Group, a GOP consulting firm based in the suburbs of Charlotte that hired Dowless, two people familiar with the probe told The Post. Two people also told The Post that the board has information that suggests that high-level officials in Harris’s campaign may have been aware of Dowless’ activities.
Observers said they believe that all the information unearthed from the reporting, and the attention it has generated, has made a demonstrable difference, as the state continues to investigate the matter.
Melanie Sill, the former executive editor at the News and Observer who now writes a weekly newsletter about local news in North Carolina, said the hustle of reporters and analysts in North Carolina was a timely reminder of the “value of on-the-ground reporting – actually going into the community and knocking on doors.”
“I think in terms of the public consciousness it’s made a huge difference,” Sill said. “The reporting has added credibility and intensity to the predictable partisan exchange over whether this [investigation] should be happening or not.”
Bitzer said that while the issue would hopefully nudge the conversation away from voter fraud, which has not been shown to have any demonstrable presence in elections, to other more complicated issues like absentee ballot fraud.
“I think this is a perfect example for people who advocate for voter ID,” Bitzer said. “This problem would not have been solved by photo IDs. This is a completely different integrity issue. It has certainly raised the awareness of how, outside the voter, different parties can seek to influence the vote by either manipulating the voter or doing things that manipulate the ballot.”
Bruno, who spends much of his time chasing local news staples – shootings, weather events, car crashes, endless city hall squabbles – said the story was a reminder of the value of his work. His producers had had the foresight to extend his segments from the usual 1 minute 15 seconds to closer to 3 minutes, because of the magnitude of the story.
“It really has made me appreciate boots-on-the-ground reporting,” he said. “Going down to an area where you don’t know what you will find, knocking on doors and seeing what you will learn. Trusting the process.”
In a letter Tuesday, Jon David, the district attorney for Bladen County, said that the office had been investigating potential voter fraud in the area since the 2016 election. That investigation, which David described as still pending, was later referred to the Wake County district attorney’s office. And he said that he has been in close conversation with the U.S. attorney in the area.
It is not clear how the reporting has influenced the investigations.
“I feel like it has helped with at least the public’s knowledge of helping understand what the heck is going on in Bladen County,” Bruno said, and also “shown that there is something out there that is worth taking a look at. That this wasn’t delayed for nefarious reasons. That there is something serious out there that deserves a closer look.”
On Tuesday, another local outlet, WBTV, reported that it had obtained handwritten notes that showed efforts to collect absentee ballots for money in Bladen County. And Bruno had another story: another woman, Cheryl Kinlaw, told him that Dowless had paid her to collect absentee ballots.