In North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, allegations of election fraud have been deemed serious enough that a bipartisan election board has refused to certify the unofficial Republican win, with state officials investigating reports that hundreds of absentee ballots from voters in Bladen and Robeson counties “were illegally cast or destroyed.” Despite the seriousness of the accusations, Fox News -- which usually trips over itself to focus on “voter fraud” -- has virtually ignored the story. Meanwhile, Charlotte television station WSOC, led by political reporter Joe Bruno, has skillfully taken the lead on covering the evolving story.
WSOC began reporting on the story as soon as the bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement first refused to certify the election results on November 27, reporting that the board was investigating “possible fraud or corruption.”
The following day, Bruno, who has also been dutifully chronicling the story on Twitter, tweeted that the crux of the board’s investigation had to do with “irregularities involving absentee ballots.” In a segment later that night, WSOC’s Liz Foster reported on both this development and a response to the board’s decision from Republican Mark Harris, whom the unofficial count showed defeating Democrat Dan McCready by less than 1,000 votes.
On November 29, Bruno was the first to report on the the content of six sworn affidavits regarding the investigation that were submitted to the election board. On WSOC, Bruno explained that the documents suggest a man named Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. may have hired up to 80 people to illegally collect and even fill out voters’ absentee ballots, potentially while working for the Harris campaign.
On November 30, Bruno conducted several on-the-ground interviews with the people who gave the affidavits. WSOC aired highlights of the interviews, which included a man saying a woman in a Mark Harris T-shirt came to his house to collect mail-in ballots.
Bruno reported that Dowless, the man at the center of the scandal, has done get-out-the-vote work for other candidates and has previously served jail time for perjury and fraud. Bruno also noted that in the primary election, Republican candidate Harris received a surprising 96 percent of Bladen County absentee mail-in votes, and in 2016, Republican candidate Todd Johnson, who finished third in the primary race, received 98 percent of Bladen County absentee mail-in votes while Dowless was doing get-out-the-vote work for him.
On December 3, Bruno was the first to speak to an absentee ballot witness who said Dowless hired her to collect ballots and deliver them to him. The woman told Bruno that she doesn’t know with certainty whether the votes were counted. She claimed that Dowless was working for Harris and the Republican candidate for sheriff, Jim McVicker.
WSOC’s reporting suggests that a partisan operative potentially on the payroll of multiple Republican campaigns directed people to collect and possibly destroy or fill out voters’ ballots, which is deeply concerning. And in a race as close as this, it’s possible that election fraud could have changed the result. As multiple national sources have relied on Bruno and WSOC in their own reporting, the station’s comprehensive coverage is another reminder of the importance of investing in local news and on-the-ground reporters.