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Columbus sheriff dispute has ties to 9th District investigation

December 22, 2018 GMT

Suspicions of absentee ballot fraud that have prompted a state investigation in the 9th Congressional District election have cropped up in the Columbus County sheriff’s race as well.

Republican Jody Greene appeared to defeat Democratic Sheriff Lewis Hatcher last month by 34 votes – out of more than 18,000 cast.

Protests were filed alleging election irregularities in majority black precincts, and the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement opened an investigation.

Nancy Hill, mayor of the small town of Brunswick, filed one of the protests, saying that she heard some absentee ballots were collected and not mailed in.

“There are, I think, 151 absentee ballots that have not been accounted for,” Hill said Friday, adding that she was compiling a list of names to hand over to state investigators. “I won’t call it voter fraud, but I do believe there was some vote stealing as far as the absentee ballots were concerned.”

State elections officials put the number of absentee ballots not returned in Columbus County at 127, which is almost four times Greene’s margin of victory.

State investigators traveled to Columbus County on Thursday to pick up absentee ballot envelopes, request forms and the request log, the same sort of documents investigators seized in an ongoing inquiry into the 9th Districts results.

McCrae Dowless, the political operative who has become the focus of the state board’s investigation into an alleged ballot-harvesting operation in neighboring Bladen County, also was active in Columbus County. And Greene hired Charlotte-based campaign consultant Red Dome Group, which hired Dowless to work for Republican 9th District candidate Mark Harris.

Neither Greene nor Hatcher responded to requests for interviews on Friday.

Greene had himself sworn in as sheriff on Dec. 3, and his name is now on the sign outside the sheriff’s office and the front door.

But state officials said that action was premature, noting the outstanding protests mean the election results cannot be certified.

Hatcher should still hold the office as acting sheriff, officials said. The state constitution says that elected officials hold their positions until their replacements “are chosen and qualified.”

Greene has told a local newspaper that he has no intention of stepping down.

“As far as him holding the office, I think it should go to the attorney general, and he should uphold the law,” Hill said.