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From Serial: The Improvement Association

archived recording

From Serial Productions and The New York Times, this is The Improvement Association.

zoe chace

Prologue, “Other People’s Ballots.” [MUSIC] There is one glaring example — one — of an election fraud case that Republicans and Democrats agree happened. It was 2018 in North Carolina, the only time in recent history — recent like the last 80 years — that a congressional election was thrown out for fraud. Democrats like to talk about this case because it was Republicans who did the cheating. Republicans like to talk about it without mentioning who did the cheating because it proves that election fraud does happen, which it does. Not very often, but it does. I like to talk about this case because of how personal the whole thing was, how rooted in this one county. It wasn’t the result of some complex, national conspiracy to rig voting machines. It was individual people in a tight-knit place, using their relationships to either make money or take revenge or both. It looks like this. In the midterm election of 2018, this guy, Mark Harris, white, Republican, former Baptist pastor, ran for Congress in North Carolina. It seemed at first like he definitely won. He beat the Democrat by 905 votes. But in one of the counties in his district, Bladen County, the number of absentee ballots was suspiciously high, way out of whack with the rest of the district. Before the election was even over, wild complaints from voters were pouring in. People said their absentee ballots had been taken from their homes, and then their ballots had never made it into the Board of Elections to be counted, or that they handed their blank ballots to others to be filled out, or that their signatures were forged. The State Board of Elections held a big hearing to figure out what was going on. That’s when I clicked into it because I know Bladen County. Two years earlier, I had done a radio story on a small election scandal in this exact same place. Ever since, I’d had a Google alert on the guy at the center of both cases, McCrae Dowless. This quiet white guy in a windbreaker, smoking a cigarette, a real operator, an elections pro, who seemed to specialize in getting out the vote via absentee ballot. Now here he was, turning up again at this big state hearing about cheating.

archived recording

I think we’re ready to start, and I think we’ll start —

zoe chace

To me, the hearing was riveting because of the testimony. Now McCrae is basically an elections professional, who loves politics, but the people who worked for him who took the stand and testified, they were not like that. This was a job they did for a few weeks or a few months, for a little extra money. And they all seemed kind of dazed and upset that this side gig had landed them here, facing a long table of lawyers.

archived recording

Thank you.

zoe chace

One young woman, named Kelly Hendricks, with a baby face, looked so nervous when she took the stand. I saw her take this deep breath and carefully exhale before she began talking. The state investigator asked her if she worked for McCrae Dowless in the 2018 election.

archived recording (kelly hendricks)

Yes, ma’am.

zoe chace

And at the very next question —

archived recording

And could you tell the board how you first met Mr. McCrae Dowless?

zoe chace

— Kelly’s face crumpled up just like a kid, and she started to cry. It was hard to watch. She grabbed a tissue and tried to talk through it. She said she’d been working at Hardee’s, and McCrae came through the drive-thru. That’s how they first met.

archived recording (kelly hendricks)

And just from there, he resembled my dad so much that I just — I connected with him. I mean, from there, that’s how I met him.

zoe chace

Kelly ended up working get out the vote for McCrae. She offered absentee request forms to family members, her boyfriend’s family, a Hardy’s customer. She said she’d picked up absentee ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina, and that she’d brought the ballots back to McCrae, instead of to the Board of Elections. Sometimes, she said, he asked her to sign as a witness on absentee ballots she had not actually witnessed when they were being filled out. So much of the testimony was emotional. You got this real sense of betrayal. McCrae’s whole Get Out the Vote operation seemed to lean heavily on people who were close to him. One of McCrae’s workers was a stepdaughter. Another was his ex-wife, the stepdaughter’s mom. When Lisa Britt, the stepdaughter, took the stand for most of the day, she looked miserable, like her head was almost too heavy for her hand to hold up. She testified that she’d taken ballots from people’s homes — again, illegal in North Carolina. And she’d filled ballots out for voters after the fact — illegal everywhere in the United States of America.

archived recording

So you were filling in the ovals and voting for other people, right?

archived recording (lisa britt)

Yes, sir.

archived recording

You were voting other people’s ballots?

archived recording (lisa britt)

Yes, sir.

archived recording

All right. I assume you knew that it was not legal to vote other people’s ballots.

archived recording (lisa britt)

Right. We were doing what we were paid to do.

archived recording

I understand, but you were paid to do something that you knew was wrong.

archived recording (lisa britt)

Yes, sir.

zoe chace

Why didn’t you ask any questions about what McCrae was asking you to do, the lawyer started to say at one point. And Lisa snapped at him.

archived recording (lisa britt)

Mr. Dowless has been a father figure to me for 30 years. So, no, there’s a lot of things that you kind of would place trust in, in someone that’s your father that’s not going to put you out here to do something illegal, I mean.

zoe chace

McCrae didn’t take the stand. He also declined very politely my interview requests. At the end of four days of hearings, Mark Harris, the Republican candidate McCrae was working for, announced he was stepping aside, and he himself called for a new election. The state of North Carolina agreed and set a date for a special election.

The whole scene made me sad. It felt very human-sized. Meeting up at the Hardee’s drive-thru? McCrae Dowless was indicted on 13 counts, including perjury, obstruction. He has yet to plead.

OK, so you know how in TV shows, sometimes there’s a minor character who later goes on to have a whole show built around them? That character from this hearing is a man named Horace Munn. During the hearing, Horace Munn made a tiny guest appearance. McCrae’s stepdaughter talked about him. She said she’d seen this guy Horace in McCrae’s office while the election was going on. He’d been making copies of absentee ballot request forms for some reason, she said. She believed he’d been coordinating with McCrae. Horace was in the audience while she was saying this, one of the only Black guys in the audience, it looked like. At the request of the state board, she pointed him out.

archived recording

Can we get his name, please, for the record?

archived recording (lisa britt)

The gentleman’s name is Horace Munn.

archived recording

Are you Mr. Munn?

archived recording (horace munn)

Yes, sir, I am.

archived recording

All right, thank you, sir.

zoe chace

When I saw Horace pop up in the hearing, I was like, what the hell? Because I knew Horace. He was part of that story I did a few years earlier in Bladen County. I knew he was the head of the political arm of a black Democratic organization in Bladen called the Bladen County Improvement Association. And I knew Horace and McCrae were huge political rivals. I knew they couldn’t stand each other. Watching this hearing, Horace’s name only came up a bit, but the name of his organization was invoked a lot. It was weird every time. People were claiming that the Bladen County Improvement Association had been working with McCrae and that they must be cheaters, too. But why would a Democratic organization be conspiring with a Republican operator on absentee ballot fraud to benefit the Republican candidate? The Bladen Improvement Group wasn’t the focus of this hearing. This was about the fraud McCrae’s team had allegedly perpetrated for the Republicans. And yet, in the closing remarks for the hearing, it seemed the state board had somehow landed on a both sides conclusion.

archived recording

And I just wanted to say to the North Carolina voters that this board of election will work and continue to work until the activities of individuals such as McCrae Dowless and organizations such as the Bladen County Improvement Association no longer create any confusion and chaos in our elections. Thank you, sir.

zoe chace

Not long after this all happened, I got a call in the middle of the night.

archived recording (horace munn)

Hello, Ms. Chace. This is Horace, the person you talked to a couple of years ago.

zoe chace

It was Horace Munn, head of Bladen Improvement. He had something he wanted to explain to me about that hearing. He wanted to explain the entire world it had come from. He texted, “Hi. Just thinking and wanted to know if you would consider doing an article about the South and Bladen County.” I did consider it. From Serial Productions, I’m Zoe Chace, and this is The Improvement Association, a true story about election fraud.

[music]

Chapter One, The Big Shadoo.

Bladen is a rural county in the southeastern part of North Carolina. Beautiful, a lot of green open land when you drive through. Some of it’s farms, some tiny towns. Often, when I want to talk to someone there, people don’t tell me how to reach them, but where to find them. Oh, Mike. He’s at the barber shop in Elizabethtown. Oh, that guy. He hangs out outside the hardware store. There’s bad cell service, not great internet. People do a lot of business face-to-face. And the election fights are like that, too, face-to-face — or hand-to-hand, really. I’m going to tell you the story of how this place ended up becoming the only place in modern times that threw out a congressional election for fraud. What led to that election is a series of elections, all of them on the ground gritty, like the place itself. And what underlies all of it is the very oldest fight in Bladen County — the fight to control the Black vote.

The idea that some people cheat is something people here talk about all the time, that someone’s getting over, someone’s cutting corners, someone’s breaking the rules, specifically, when it comes to elections. When I first headed down here after the text from Horace, my questions were simple. Was he in on some kind of conspiracy with McCrae? And what did he want to tell me? And I thought that’s what I’d be talking about — election corruption or something — with this group of people Horace Munn told me I needed to meet. He’d said, come down here. I got two county commissioners, a former Board of Elections person, and a former sheriff, all ready to talk. So I showed up in the tiny town hall of the tiny town of East Arcadia.

speaker

That was in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s.

zoe chace

Everyone was already talking when I got there. They’re all deep into local politics. And listening to them is like when basketball fans talk about March Madness or something. I don’t know the teams. I don’t know the players. The small talk is really hard for me to follow.

speaker

And another person ran.

zoe chace

Which office was this?

speaker

And that was the county commissioner.

zoe chace

OK.

speaker

He ran for county commissioner.

zoe chace

Almost everyone here is a member of Horace’s organization, the full name of which is the Bladen County Improvement Association PAC. Members of the PAC generally just call it the PAC, even though it’s not a PAC the way people usually think of a PAC. It’s not a sluice for dark money. It doesn’t bankroll TV commercials. This is what it is — a local group that runs get out the vote campaigns during elections for and by Black people in Bladen County. They endorse candidates. Sometimes they get money from candidates — not every single time — and usually they get money from the state Democratic party. The meeting is awkward at first. I expected Horace to sort of take the lead here, but he’s hanging back, sitting at the furthest corner of the table, quiet. Horace, kind of short, stocky, almost always with his trademark accessories of sunglasses and cap, even indoors. I don’t want you to see my eyes, he said once. And I was like, but that makes it way harder for me to see how you’re feeling. That’s the point, he told me. Horace is private. He does not like to feel things in public. He grew up here in this little town of East Arcadia. He’s retired now. He was career army, but he’s pretty involved in this town. He’s on the town council, has been for 10 years. He’s the volunteer fire chief. During elections, he’s running the Bladen County Improvement Association PAC. Anyway, I kept waiting for Horace or someone to haul off like, and here’s what we want to tell you about the cheating, reporter. But it’s not happening. So, finally, I’m like —

zoe chace

Well, I’m happy to take you guys through the questions I have, but I also do want to say that when Horace and I spoke, he said that there were some things that some of you guys had on your mind that you wanted to discuss. And a big part of the reason I came down here today for this meeting specifically was to find out what that is, hear what you’re thinking about.

zoe chace

Long pause, then a little more chatting, until, finally, Horace’s friend, Cogdell, George Michael Cogdell — everyone calls him Cogdell — kind of takes over the meeting, as he’s want to do. He’s been in the Bladen Improvement PAC even longer than Horace. Cogdell’s an intense guy, a fast talker.

george michael cogdell

I’m going to say this. And I may be wrong, but I’m going to say it. They’ve been trying to get rid of us ever since I’ve been associated with the PAC because it’s very simple. If they don’t endorse you, you can’t win.

zoe chace

If they don’t endorse you, actually meaning if we don’t endorse you, we the Bladen Improvement PAC. If the PAC doesn’t endorse you, you can’t win, Cogdell is saying. For years, the PAC has been a powerful force in Bladen politics, because the pack reliably delivers votes, Black votes. Politicians, both white and Black, often court the PAC because their endorsement is so valuable. It can swing elections. That’s why the Bladen Improvement PAC is coming under attack, Cogdell is saying, because we’re too powerful. The thing Cogdell and Horace want to tell me is this. Republicans have been cheating down here. And each election, they get bolder. And each time, Republicans and Bladen try to paint the PAC with the crimes that they themselves are committing. This is how these guys see it. That’s what was going on in Raleigh, Horace says, during the state hearing about McCrae Dowless. Republicans bring up the PAC to distract from McCrae, he says. It’s a strategy.

george michael cogdell

They were fully aware of what McCrae was doing. But what they would do to throw off from McCrae, they would always talk about the Bladen Improvement PAC doing illegal activities. They would keep the heat off of him by putting it on the Bladen Improvement PAC. And they’re doing the same thing again. They made a big shadoo ‘cause there was just so much publicity and they do nothing with it.

zoe chace

They made a big shadoo about McCrae because they had to, but what they really want to talk about is us, Cogdell is saying. And he waves around his big mug of ice. The hearing, Horace says, was just more of the same, except bigger, in order to bring the PAC down once and for all, in order to weaken its power or just kill it off. But why, I’m asking him, and Horace interrupts.

horace munn

Let me explain something to you, to go back to 2010.

zoe chace

Let me explain something to you, Horace says. Let’s go back to 2010. And this is where Horace really pipes up. Horace leans across the table to tell me what he sees as the origin story of how that 2018 congressional race blew up, what’s behind all of these election fraud allegations in Bladen, and what the Republicans have been up to for the last 10 years here. He wants to tell me what all that has to do with the PAC and with him. In 2010, the PAC fought to get Horace’s friend, Prentis Benston, elected as the first Black Sheriff in Bladen County’s history. Horace had just become the president of the PAC, and he had this big plan.

horace munn

I knew that it was going to be a hard campaign for him to win.

Knowing the breakdown of Bladen County, i.e., the racial breakdown, we knew it to be tough. He couldn’t win with just Black votes. He had to have white votes.

zoe chace

Bladen County, around 35,000 people, is about 30% Black and 60% white. So usually, white people decided who was Sheriff. Horace knew, as a rule, white people didn’t vote for Black candidates in this county. So if you’re running a Black candidate in a countywide race, trying to win a majority of the county, and the majority of the county is white, you’ll definitely lose. But Horace thought Prentis Benston was different. He had a real chance to pick up some white voters. There was this feeling at the time, Horace says. Obama had just been elected president. He’d won North Carolina. Some white people would vote for a Black man to be in charge. And Prentis was a good candidate. He’d been a Sheriff’s deputy for 22 years. He was a captain, had a lot of friends in the department. He had a business degree. He knew how to manage people. People liked him.

horace munn

It was not really just about having the first Black Sheriff. Prentis is an outgoing person, a nice person. When it comes to carrying out his duties to serve, he worked in the White communities, as well as the Black communities. When you looked at those who were running, he was the most qualified.

zoe chace

Prentis Benston was also a Democrat, which may be sounds like a disadvantage in a conservative rural southern county, but at the local level, Bladen County back then was almost all Democrats. Plenty of people would vote for Republican candidates for president, but local elections in Bladen, they were all decided in the Democratic primary pretty much.

When I was in Bladen, one thing I kept hearing about that time was the real split in the county was between the Democrats who did not want to change the system and the Democrats who did, the good old boy system, which everyone talks about down here. And basically, it boils down to white favoritism, sort of two parts letting things slide, one part hooking people up — a job, contract, an off the books approval, stuff like that. But Horace was betting that some white people in Bladen, maybe just enough, were feeling like the good old boy system was not working great for them, like they weren’t benefiting. They weren’t getting the favors or the passes. And a couple of the people it wasn’t working for were other Sheriff’s deputies — white guys who knew Prentis and ended up throwing themselves into the campaign. One became his campaign manager. They tell other skeptical white people Prentis Benston is fair. He’s not a good old boy, obviously. And don’t worry, he’s not just going to start favoring the Black people. He’s just straight ahead, same rules for everyone. Wouldn’t that be a nice change?

[music]

So, in the primary for Sheriff, there were five people running. The leading candidate was this white deputy named Eric Bryan. By all accounts, Eric Bryan was funny. He was a tease, popular. The outgoing Sheriff endorsed him. I think it’s fair to say that most people in the county pretty much just assumed that Eric Bryan would win. And Eric Bryan did win the primary, but not by enough. He didn’t get enough votes to clinch it. By law, there had to be a runoff election between the two highest vote getters. And the second highest vote getter was Prentis Benston. That’s where things get super intense in Bladen County. Horace was like, oh, we could actually win. We got so close. This could really happen. We got to get people to vote in the runoff. But getting people to vote in a runoff election is hard. Turnout usually goes down in a runoff. And Horace had a big problem.

horace munn

When it came to the runoff, you only had one polling site. That was in Elizabethtown.

zoe chace

Elizabethtown is in the center of the county. Horace’s hometown, East Arcadia, is a smooth half-hour drive south. The whole southern part of the county is primarily Black. It’s a lot of gas to Elizabethtown and back. And in a poor spread out rural county, that can be a real factor in whether people will cast a vote. This was a big deal.

horace munn

For us, it put us at a disadvantage because most of your minorities are in any outlying areas other than Elizabethtown. And the distance from here for someone to go to E-town and vote early is not going to happen. Whereas, for people in Dublin, Bladenboro, they’re close to Elizabethtown. And those are your majority white areas. So we had to figure out a strategy to level the playing field.

zoe chace

The way Horace tells it, the strategy hit him like a bolt of lightning. He loves to tell this story about his stroke of genius. It was the middle of the night. Horace has insomnia. He doesn’t sleep much.

horace munn

This particular night, I was lying there. And about 3 o’clock, 3:30 in the morning, I called Prentis. Are you asleep? You asleep? I said, wake up. I figured it out. He said figured out what, Horace?

I said, we can win. He said, how? I said, absentee ballots.

zoe chace

Absentee ballots as a get out the vote strategy. That was the idea. You’re familiar with this a-ha moment now, I think, here in 2021. The entire Democratic Party was struck by this exact same idea when the pandemic hit to deal with a possible low turnout, because COVID, crank up the number of votes by absentee ballot. But 10 years ago in North Carolina, absentee voting wasn’t that common. So Horace had this new idea. He was amped. His dad had been a big part of the Bladen Improvement PAC. And after Horace retired from the army and came home, he and his dad talked politics a lot — strategy. And now, the year of the Sheriff’s race, Horace was the brand new president of the PAC. And he mobilized the group around his absentee ballot idea like it was some kind of military opp. It was going to be a whole different thing.

horace munn

In order to do absentee ballots, we had never done it before as an organization. So it’s a new adventure. So I actually got a copy of the law, governing how to complete an absentee ballot the legal way. And I took all the information, I studied it. And then at my next scheduled meeting of the Bladen Improvement, I gave a class. And at first, there were some that were questioning it, saying, oh, you have to be sick or out of town. I said, that’s not so. That’s not the law.

zoe chace

Horace is a big fan of rules, of the statutes, which, when it comes to absentee ballots, can be extensive. His time in the military makes him a little straight-backed. He also has this thing where he’s always watching out for people trying to trip him up. He told me that once in the army, an officer was ordering weapons parts for himself illegally and tried to get Horace to look the other way, expecting him to go along to get along. Horace is not into that. He’s cautious and he’s suspicious, because he knows people are suspicious of him.

horace munn

I dot every I, and I cross every T. I cannot stand someone having something that they can use to hurt me or control me. No one can control me. That’s why I operate in accordance with the statutes with this Board of Election stuff. Any time I involve myself in something, I read the regulations first.

zoe chace

Horace had to contend with a lot of suspicion. First of all, suspicion from Black voters. They weren’t used to the whole absentee ballot process. So the PAC hired workers from Black areas to fan out across the county and knock on the doors in their own neighborhoods, driving through all the spread out parts, across big tobacco and sunflower fields.

horace munn

Certain areas that we felt that were critical to the election, that’s where we would train the people and sent them back into their hometowns.

zoe chace

Then Horace had to contend with the suspicion of the County Board of Elections members. He figured they’d raise their eyebrows at a whole bunch of new absentee ballot requests coming in from anywhere, but especially his PAC. At the same time, Horace was also deeply suspicious of them. He believed the board members were part of the good old boy system, and he took it on faith that they’d be trying to help the other side, Eric Bryan, white candidate. And that if the Board of Elections people figured out what Horace and the PAC were doing with absentee ballots, using them as a get out the vote strategy, they’d mess with them or tip off the opposition.

horace munn

I told the members to keep it low key, that we wanted to operate under the radar. And that when they figured out what’s going on, it will be too late to react. That’s what happened.

zoe chace

To keep it low key, Horace and Cogdell would drop off the absentee ballot request forms in small batches, a few at a time, from disparate parts of the county, so it’d take longer for the board to catch on that there was a thing. Eventually, of course, people did notice that the Bladen Improvement PAC was doing something. And apparently, that was news.

archived recording

It’s called the Bladen County Improvement Association, and it’s been operating for at least 30 years. But who exactly runs this organization is a mystery to many residents.

zoe chace

This is a local TV news segment, pretty typical of local news coverage of the PAC around that time. It features close-ups of official looking documents. And then, cut to a guy in his dining room, talking to a TV reporter, with those documents artfully spread out on the table before him.

archived recording (benny callahan)

They say they’re Bladen County Improvement Association. And if they are, I might would want to be a member. I want to improve Bladen County. I would like to see it grow and be beautiful. But I’ve never seen a park that they cleaned up, never seen any playground equipment — and I’m not saying they’ve not done this. But if they have, I don’t have any knowledge of it.

archived recording

Instead, the only thing resident Benny Callahan sees this group do is work to influence the outcome of the elections.

zoe chace

It’s a one-interview story with one random white guy in the county. Not the mayor, not a politician. He’s a literal rando. But now that I’ve talked to a lot of people in Bladen County, I do think his view actually did represent how lots of white conservatives were feeling about the Association.

archived recording

Benny Callahan thinks the group holds far too much sway and literally controls who gets elected through a group of hundreds of residents who vote exactly the way they’re told.

archived recording (benny callahan)

They control our day-to-day lives. And they’re electing people that maybe I don’t want and maybe a lot of the people in Bladen County don’t want.

zoe chace

The TV story didn’t mention the Bladen Improvement is an all-Black political organization in a majority white county. But of course, that was the central dynamic of this election. Bladen had been living with the power of the PAC for years, and they did have a lot of influence. But using that to put the first Black guy in the Sheriff’s office brought a lot to the surface. Things got vicious inside the Sheriff’s department. Wanda Monroe, a Black Sheriff’s deputy who’s in the PAC, said she was used to getting along with everybody at work. But once her white colleagues realized that Eric Bryan, the white candidate, might lose and Prentis could win, things got bad.

wanda monroe

Caucasians that were for Eric did not mind making it known that they did not want to be ruled by a Black Sheriff, not in their lifetime. “Bladen County never had one, they don’t need one,” was some of the words that I had heard.

zoe chace

So people, were they saying that out in the open? How were people making that known?

wanda monroe

Yeah, they are bold.

zoe chace

So did people come up to you and say it to your face?

wanda monroe

Yes, because they were looking for a reaction because they wanted to know who I was endorsing.

zoe chace

Prentis told me he started to worry for his safety. He declined an offer to go to the firing range with some white deputies at one point. He just didn’t trust people, he said. He started taking precautions, stopped eating at certain places. The reason so many people were agitated over this election is because we’re talking about the Sheriff’s office. It is hard to overstate the power a Sheriff’s office has in a place like this. In a rural county with tiny or nonexistent local police forces in the few towns that exist, the Sheriff is a sort of king, deciding what law enforcement looks like in the county, whose businesses are getting busted for bending the rules, whose kids are getting a verbal warning, whose kids are getting arrested. One time, I was sitting with Horace’s friend Cogdell there in his truck to get out of the cold, and we were talking about all the opposition to Prentis. And he brought up another aspect of the Sheriff’s power that I hadn’t even considered. A Sheriff is as close as you can get to omniscient in a rumory place like this one.

cogdell

You’ve got to understand, when you get into certain positions, Zoe, here what you open up. It’s just like this. In my house, I’m the head of my house. When things happen in my house, it comes by me. When you’re in the leadership role, everything must come by you. All the knowledge and all the secrets and everything have to come by you. So at that point in time, ain’t no more secrets.

zoe chace

So what’s that have to do with Prentis running for sheriff?

cogdell

Everything he had, they didn’t want him knowing everything that came through that system.

zoe chace

The Sheriff knows people’s business in the county, the human part, the embarrassing, or the tragic, as well as the criminal or the unethical. That kind of power is not something any Black person in Bladen County had ever had before, so far as I can tell.

cogdell

If your child had committed the crime, if your child had some drug issues, if you were writing bad checks and they going all over the place, and you high and mighty. So who would know it? Prentis would have to know all of it.

zoe chace

The day of the runoff came. There were 17 polling places open. The PAC had workers at 16 of them. One was a church. They didn’t want electioneering on the property. Horace did what he does every Election Day. He started around 7:30 and drove around to all the polling places, checked in with the poll workers, dropped off their checks. The PAC poll workers are paid by the PAC a stipend for gas and food. He was probably asking everyone, have you seen a lot of minorities voting today? He does that. And then when he finished his rounds, he waited. Bladen County always gathers to watch election returns at the County Courthouse. And that night, it was packed and also silent as the results clicked in. Nearly every Black voter cast a vote for Prentis Benston, plus a few white voters. And Prentis Benston won by almost 300 votes. Horace’s strategy had worked. It was the absentee ballots that made the difference. Wanda Monroe, the Sheriff’s deputy who’s in the PAC, she remembers that night.

wanda monroe

This is strictly opinion, you know that, right? But it was almost like they realized that we weren’t dumb. [LAUGHS] That we are living, breathing human beings with brains.

zoe chace

That’s what it felt like?

wanda monroe

Yes. Like OK, they smart.

They may be too smart for their own good. [LAUGHS]

[music]
zoe chace

In the days following the election, Horace, who should have been celebrating up and down the county, was upset.

horace munn

I felt like it was highway robbery. I felt they had done Prentis wrong. I was angry.

zoe chace

Prentis’s victory was short-lived. Horace had a whole other problem on his hands. That’s after the break.

[music]

Prentis Benston had won the runoff for the Democratic primary. He’d beat Eric Bryan. And throughout the race, the county government had been saying, whoever won the runoff would be the Sheriff. Because in Bladen County, the Democratic primary was the election when it came to the Sheriff’s race. A Republican challenger for Sheriff, if there even was one, had no chance. So Horace says that he’d been told, that everyone had been told, the primary winner would be appointed right away to serve through the general election.

horace munn

But they were under the assumption that Eric Bryan was going to win. And he lost. And all of a sudden, I hear rumors that we’re going to bring somebody else in.

zoe chace

OK, real quick, what happened next is like a little play within a play farce of small town politics. But I’m going to tell you because it’s an illustration of how badly it seems people in power did not want Prentis Benston to take office. First, the county commission doesn’t see them. Instead, the commission votes on an interim Sheriff, this guy Earl Storms, to serve till December. He’s a former Sheriff from the ‘80s. But what the commissioners don’t all account for, apparently, is that Earl Storms is a Prentis Benston booster. He’d hired him back when. And so Earl Storms’s first move as Sheriff is to let go of Deputy Eric Bryan, the candidate Prentis Benston has just beat in the runoff, and also four other deputies who are Eric Bryan supporters. Poof. Suddenly, they were out of jobs. Interim Sheriff Storms reportedly posts a memo telling everyone, answer to Prentis Benston, not to me. Then the commission is like, this isn’t what we wanted to happen and tries to get rid of Earl Storms. It was like, who’s in charge? Everyone’s mad. There were big angry meetings covered by local news.

archived recording

While commissioners appointed him to the job, it seems state law won’t allow the board to fire him. We can ask him to resign, but we can’t make him resign. We can’t do nothing with him. What was supposed to be calm has only spawned storms.

zoe chace

In the meantime, a petition surfaces to get a guy onto the ballot in time for the general election, a former highway patrolman, this white guy, Billy Ward, a Democrat who filed as an independent, who suddenly had a lot of muscle behind him. Finally, finally, it’s election night again, this time in November, after Horace and everyone else has cranked out a third get out the vote effort for the same election, the whole shadoo all over again. And now, everyone’s gathered in the courthouse.

archived recording

I’m John Ruman. I’m at the courthouse in Elizabethtown in Bladen County. And pardon the pun, but there’s a new Sheriff in town in Bladen County. And it’s Prentis Benston. Congratulations tonight. How does this sound, Sheriff Prentis Benston?

archived recording (prentis benston)

That sounds good. Certainly, John, it’s a great day, a great night for Bladen County, for me.

horace munn

Did you know that when Prentis actually won, I stayed home?

zoe chace

On the night of the general?

horace munn

Yes.

zoe chace

Why?

horace munn

I stayed home.

zoe chace

Horace gets a little starry-eyed when he talks about the victory.

horace munn

I don’t think — I would have gotten so emotional if he lost. So I stayed home. Yeah.

zoe chace

So what happened when Prentis called you that night?

horace munn

Oh, I was ecstatic. Oh, I remember it. It’s like yesterday.

zoe chace

What happened?

horace munn

Oh, I was jumping for joy. Unbelievable. Dream come true. Hard work that paid off. I think the next day, I slept. And I think — I said, you know what? I’m so excited, I went and bought me a new car. [LAUGHS]

zoe chace

Are you serious?

horace munn

Yes. That’s my brother’s SUV I’m driving.

zoe chace

The which that you’re driving?

horace munn

The SUV.

zoe chace

Oh, yeah.

horace munn

Yeah, I bought that car after the election. Sure did.

Yeah, I remember.

zoe chace

Winning is so sweet, but this victory is not the point of the story. It’s not why Horace is telling it to me. The whole point of Horace’s story is what happened next. After the first Black Sheriff in Bladen County was elected with the help of a slew of absentee votes, the point of the story is this. Horace got a visit from a local guy, a guy who worked during the Sheriff’s race for Prentis’s opponent. This man came to see Horace after the race was over, shook his hand, was like, good game. It was McCrae Dowless.

horace munn

It was McCrae. McCrae, once the election was over, he say, Horace, you got me. He wasn’t a sore loser. We talked about it. And he actually befriended us and started hanging around.

zoe chace

How so?

horace munn

At the time, he was a Democrat.

zoe chace

Right.

horace munn

So he dealt with us through the Democrat Party. So he befriended us and hung around long enough to learn a little bit, how we were doing what we’re doing. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do it. But he kind of hung around a little bit.

zoe chace

But like, what does hang around mean?

horace munn

Come to the Democratic meetings and talk about — congratulate sometimes our success with the absentee ballots and stuff like that.

zoe chace

Horace and McCrae shared an obsession with Bladen County politics, which I, too, now share. They talked on the phone a lot. They talked about the absentee ballot, get out the vote strategy, how exactly it worked. They were on the same side for a little while. But then, just four years later, as more and more people in Bladen County were starting to vote Republican in local elections, a viable Republican candidate ran for Sheriff. That Republican campaign for Sheriff ended up working with McCrae Dowless to get out the vote. And how did McCrae get out the vote? He ran an absentee ballot get out the vote program very much like the one the PAC had run four years earlier to get Prentis elected. McCrae’s involvement is spelled out in court documents, including an affidavit from McCrae. Lots of absentee ballots poured in that year, but Prentis lost. Prentis’s Sherriff’s term was the shortest in more than 80 years.

The way Horace sees it, the 2010 Sheriff’s race in Bladen County began an escalating absentee ballot war between the PAC and McCrae Dowless that culminated spectacularly in the 2018 congressional scandal, where Bladen County became famous for alleged election cheating.

horace munn

So basically what happened was, McCrae decided to take our strategy and use it against us. We will operate within the law. He was operating outside of the law.

zoe chace

That’s Horace’s story of how the fraud started here as a white reaction to Black voters putting a Black man in charge. But of course, that’s not how everyone in Bladen County sees it. I’d venture to say not even how most people in Bladen County see it.

speaker

I don’t know who trained who. [LAUGHS] But if you think Horace Munn is less guilty than McCrae Dowless, you’re smoking some strange stuff. [LAUGHS]

zoe chace

That’s next time on the Improvement Association.

[music]

The Improvement Association is produced by Nancy Updike and me. Neil Drumming is our managing editor. Julie Snyder is the executive editor. Additional editing by Sarah Koenig and Ira Glass. R.L. Nave is our editorial consultant. Fact-checking and research by Ben Phelan. Music supervision and mixing by Phoebe Wang. Amy Pedulla is our associate producer. Ndeye Thioubou is the supervising producer. Original music composed by Kwame Brandt-Pierce. Additional support from the staff at This American Life, including Emanuele Berry, Julie Whitaker, Cassie Howley, Seth Lind and Frances Swanson. At The New York Times, Sam Dolnick, Lauren Jackson, Elizabeth Davis-Moore, Alena Cerro and Nora Keller. Special thanks to Tim Tyson, Michael Bitzer, Hakeem Brown, Joe Bruno, Dr. Niambi Carter, Al Daniels, Herman Dunn, Mark Elias, Steve Lasseigne, Jens Loots, Eric Ostermeier, Kenny Simmons, and Zach St. Louis. The Improvement Association is produced by Serial Productions and The New York Times. [MUSIC]

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