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Report: Allegations of vote-buying in Robeson County predated District 9 controversy

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A lengthy new report from WRAL’s Tyler Dukes details how allegations of vote-buying in Robeson County long predated the District 9 ruckus, begging questions about local prosecutors in the eastern North Carolina county.

According to that report, published Tuesday morning, state election investigators held evidence that appeared to indicate a candidate for local elected office may have paid voters to go to the polls. But the local district attorney — who defends himself in the story — did not prosecute.

The emails that raised eyebrows in 2015 didn’t concern the 9th Congressional District, which made national headlines in 2018. Instead, they focused on a nonpartisan race for city council in Lumberton, where one candidate accused her opponent of paying three voters to cast ballots in exchange for $7 apiece.

Robeson County, of course, was tied up in the allegations of ballot harvesting that forced a new election in Congressional District 9 this year.

But today’s reporting lends further credence to the notion that Robeson County — and the District 9 region — may have been ripe for election malfeasance.

The most important questions, though, involve how state officials will approach these cases in the future. The reporting delves into that as well:

[Former Robeson County D.A. Johnson] Britt’s decision in 2016 was not the first time local prosecutors – or even state and federal ones – have declined to pursue charges over allegations of election improprieties.

In 2010, for example, a special deputy attorney general with the state Department of Justice declined a request from Bladen County’s top prosecutor to look into vote-buying allegations there. Despite allegations of “voter fraud and assorted trickery,” the DOJ lawyer wrote, most alleged victims were elderly and unreliable – they weren’t credible witnesses.

The Robeson County case stands out in some respects, said Josh Lawson, general counsel for the State Board of Elections. But he said it’s also emblematic, in some ways, that the agency sometimes has a difficult time “getting traction” with local prosecutors.

Lawson said his agency is doing its part. State elections officials have ordered at least nine new elections since 2016.

Yet criminal charges like those in the 9th Congressional District investigation remain a rarity – and are well outside the legal purview of the board.

“We’re not trying to cast blame on anybody,” elections board spokesman Pat Gannon said. “But what can happen if these things are allowed to linger and keep happening without any repercussions, the offenders get more brazen. Things that appear to have happened in Bladen this year will happen.”

And if a local prosecutor declines to bring criminal charges – whatever the reason – the board essentially has no recourse.

“Until something happens to change the culture in those areas, we’re going to continue to have to repeat this conversation over and over again,” Gannon said.

Former Robeson District Attorney Britt said one potential fix is a change in state law. Legislators could give the authority to prosecute election law violations to the state attorney general’s office, or even the Wake County district attorney, where the state elections board is based.

That tactic worked for the 9th District, where Wake County’s district attorney took over the investigation after Bladen County’s top prosecutor recused himself.

“You put it in the hands of the people who are most familiar with it,” Britt said.

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