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Patrick Gannon: Votes bought in NC?

Patrick Gannon

gannon.pat

RALEIGH – The agenda for last week’s State Board of Elections meeting sounded like something out of a novel or HBO series or third world country.

Could vote-buying really be happening in North Carolina? And by no less than a candidate for sheriff?

That was the accusation by Scotland County Sheriff Shep Jones against his challenger in the November election, Ralph Kersey, a retired state trooper. Kersey, a Republican, defeated Jones, a Democrat, by 238 votes. Then came vote-buying allegations, which Kersey and his attorney have repeatedly denied.

Jones, who became the county’s first black sheriff in 2006, alleged that Kersey and his supporters offered cash, alcohol and food for votes. He claimed that Kersey campaign workers knocked on doors in poor housing areas seeking voters to buy off.

Jones said he believed Kersey’s people targeted voters who would be less likely to come forward later because of criminal records or mistrust of the system. He said that threats by Kersey to sue or prosecute anyone who made “false statements” against him also discouraged witnesses from coming forward.

Jones produced written statements from about 18 people who said they either were paid for their votes but didn’t vote, were offered money but didn’t take it or observed possible vote-buying. The statements didn’t include much detail and were questionable at best. Some came from inmates.

The state board decided that Jones didn’t present evidence that enough vote-buying occurred to warrant a new election. In other words, even if a few votes were bought, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome. The board also decided to forward information to the district attorney for possible prosecution. Vote-buying is a felony.

The day after the hearing, Jones conceded the race and said he wouldn’t pursue an appeal. Kersey is now expected to take office later this month.

The story is making waves in Scotland County. Board member Joshua Malcolm, a Democrat from neighboring Robeson County, said he was “deeply disappointed” in the situation. In 2013, the state board ordered a new municipal election in the town of Pembroke in Robeson County after finding a number or “irregularities” in voting.

“I’m tired of southeastern North Carolina coming to Raleigh,” Malcolm said during the Scotland County hearing. “It’s an embarrassment to my community and y’all’s.”

Malcolm also encouraged anyone with information about possible vote-buying in Scotland County to come forward to authorities.

State Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat who represents that area, said it “further divides our community.”

“In time, hopefully it will heal, but it’s very tough to go into office under a cloud like that,” he said.

Regardless which candidate is telling the truth, the real losers are Scotland County residents. Either they had a dishonest sheriff, or they do now.

Gannon writes for Capitol Press Association.

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