ELIZABETHTOWN, N.C. (AP) — In the North Carolina county where a congressional election was scrapped last year after suspected ballot tampering, voters say the county's history of underhanded politics makes them wonder whether fairness will continue beyond next week's special election.
"In this county, I've always had doubts," said Jerry Jackson, a Bladen County native now retired after careers as a U.S Coast Guard lieutenant and prison case manager. "No, I don't have full confidence in the government in Bladen County."
Jackson, 73, said he remembers a case years ago when a woman was accused of voting twice, but she wasn't prosecuted.
"They just let her go. She said she was testing the system," the registered Republican said. "I'm going to go into a bank and rob it and get caught, but I'm just testing the police response. You think that'll work? I don't think that'll work."
State elections officials say the same investigators who documented the fraud last year are again ready to dig in if any irregularities are spotted during do-over balloting for the 9th Congressional District race between Republican Dan Bishop, Democrat Dan McCready and two others.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, are considering legislation that would make certain election-related activities illegal while increasing the penalties for others that are already a crime.
Voters have their doubts. Waitress and registered Democrat Billie Cashwell, 50, said political parties in the south-central North Carolina county are unlikely to try manipulating ballots on Tuesday "because the spotlight's kind of on them now." But Cashwell said she was worried that cheating could return over time.
The special election was ordered after an investigation found a consultant recruited and hired by last year's Republican candidate, Mark Harris, may have collected, changed or discarded voter's ballots. The local political operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., has been indicted on felony charges. He has denied the charges.
In a written summary of its investigation, the state elections board wrote that the congressional contest "was corrupted by fraud, improprieties, and irregularities so pervasive that its results are tainted."
Former FBI agents and others working for the board had uncovered similar suspected ballot-collection misdeeds by Dowless in 2016 and advised federal prosecutors in January 2017 that they should investigate. No federal charges resulted, but the FBI and state investigative agents had Dowless under surveillance before last year's elections, according to unsealed warrants.
Since 2010, prosecutors and elections officials have received at least a half dozen complaints of serious election irregularities — including cash for votes — against both Republicans and Democrats. Bladen is among North Carolina's least densely populated counties and many of its 35,000 residents have deep family roots, making politics personal.
The intense emotions that result can sometimes drift into cheating, registered Democrats Ashley McKoy and Stephen Brown said.
"They believe they're right and know better, and if you're not with them ...," said Brown, a 62-year-old retired truck driver. "There's always going to be some doubts. When one side wants to win so badly, they'll figure out a way to do it ... even if it means tampering with your sacred power" as a voter.
Former FBI agents and others who investigated the Harris scandal are ready to again "review all complaints and investigate credible evidence of election fraud," state elections board spokesman Pat Gannon said in an email.
A bill now being debated in the state legislature would make it a felony to discard, fail to deliver, or destroy absentee ballots or ballot request forms, which is what authorities accused Dowless and those he hired of doing. Penalties also would be enhanced on offenses such as forging a voter's signature to get a ballot counted. Additionally, the measure would make it illegal to have outside groups, known as "harvesters," return absentee ballot request forms on behalf of voters.
State elections professionals have been visiting Bladen County for weeks to train precinct officials and poll workers, Gannon said. State staffers who completed preelection processes and confirmed that supplies are ready to go will be in the county before, during and after Tuesday's election, he said.
County election officials also have followed several suggestions from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Those include installing video cameras and moving out a veteran's service worker who shared the office, interim county elections Director Valeria Peacock McKoy demonstrated during an office tour Wednesday.
Judy Dowless, a registered Republican married to Dowless' first cousin, said people have exaggerated the ballot fraud that prompted the special congressional election.
"I don't think it was a scandal. I think it was a misunderstanding," she said while leaving an early-voting site.
Follow Emery P. Dalesio on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/emery%20dalesio.