The Robeson County Courthouse with Civil War memorial in Lumberton, North Carolina. (Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel, Wikimedia Commmons)

The first time I voted was in the 2008 primary. My high school principal arranged for a bus to take voting-eligible seniors from our high school to an early voting polling place. We lived in one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest counties in the state – Robeson County, North Carolina. And we were there to experience a real-life civics lesson.

After a few of us (including me) cast our ballots, the principal told the rest of the students they couldn’t vote. We had to leave. The school board had received a complaint. Apparently someone with some authority decided a bus full of mostly poor, mostly Black and Native American 18-year-olds must not have been legal voters. We were sent back to school, having learned a very different lesson than the one our principal intended.

I’ve thought about this story a lot as the North Carolina Election Commission handled allegations of election fraud in the N.C. 9th Congressional District. The commission ultimately ordered a new election after investigating improper collection of absentee ballots by an operative associated with Republican candidate Mark Harris.

Bladen County, where the illegal voting practices occurred, adjoins my home county of Robeson. We are also in the N.C. 9th Congressional District. In the Bladen County case, a political science professor dug through election data and found the evidence of questionable absentee ballots. In Robeson County, finding a problem with voting was a lot easier. All someone had to do was look at a school bus carrying the wrong 18 year olds.

Robeson, a nonmetropolitan county in southeast North Carolina, has long had a reputation as a hotbed of political corruption. Examples date as far back as the late 19th century. In the 1890s, it took almost a year to resolve a Congressional race because of allegations of electoral malfeasance by the Democrats in Robeson County. (I wrote about that election on Legal Ruralism late last year).

In my last piece for the Daily Yonder, I detailed some of the race-based incidents that plagued Robeson County in the 1980s, many of which involved elected officials and one of which involved a candidate being murdered prior to an election. In 1988, a desire to bring attention to the corruption in Robeson County even caused two men to break into the local newspaper and take hostages.

Growing up in the area, I heard rumors of fraud and electoral malfeasance, and much of it centered around allegations of vote buying and bribery. Many of the allegations, often levied against communities of color, were based on the idea that candidates were bribing people to vote for them and busing them to the polls to do so. The culture of these allegations has led the local media to conflate completely legal Democratic “get-out-the-vote” efforts with the actual fraud committed by Harris and his campaign.

These documented crimes undermine the entirely legal work being done by organizers in their communities. This corruption stigmatizes people who organize and rally voters to support a particular candidate. The effect is that it lessens the voices of marginalized populations.

Growing up in the area, I knew people who had lost faith in the electoral process. Beaten down by years of corruption, they simply felt that the government did not work for them and that no matter what they did, nothing would ever change. This attitude is reflected in the voter turnout in Robeson County, which typically lags the rest of the state.

For many, this attitude is well-founded. In my part of Robeson County, we felt isolated from Lumberton, the county seat, much less Raleigh and Washington. It was not uncommon to hear that county government only took care of “certain people,” referring to people who lived in certain neighborhoods or who had a personal connection with the elected official.  Last year  local media  called for hurricane relief efforts to focus on an affluent subdivision as a way to retain “talented people.” The perception that there are certain “favored people” is pervasive in local politics.

In many ways, corruption or allegations of corruption are endemic to Robeson County politics. It was perhaps the one constant.

The North Carolina Election Commission found solid evidence of voter fraud. The silver lining would be if documented fraud cases like this one shine a spotlight on the impact of actual corruption rather than promoting general distrust in the election system.

The 9th District gets another chance to do things right. I hope registered voters at my old high school will be encouraged to turn out.

 Christopher Chavis is a native of Robeson County, North Carolina, and currently lives in Virginia. He is a contributing writer for Legal Ruralism, a blog that covers legal issues facing rural America. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and a juris doctor from Michigan State University College of Law. He is also a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. 

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