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By all accounts, election fraud is rare.
But following the 2018 election, the small, rural community of Bladen County, N.C., made news when state officials threw out the results of a congressional race over suspicions of fraud.
Two years earlier, in the same county, state officials received similar reports of vote rigging, although those turned out to be unfounded.
Zoe Chace, a producer for the podcast “Serial” and the radio program “This American Life,” set out to understand how Bladen County became fertile ground for these allegations. The result of her reporting is “The Improvement Association,” a five-part podcast series produced by Serial Productions and The New York Times. The episodes explore the corrosive power of claims of election fraud and the role that race played in those claims in Bladen County.
“Bladen County was consumed with rumors and accusations of election fraud long before the 2020 presidential election, and we wanted to understand how that happened and how it has affected people’s lives there,” Ms. Chace said.
Ms. Chace first spent time in Bladen County while reporting a radio story for “This American Life.” In 2016, local Republicans had accused the Bladen County Improvement Association PAC, a Black Democratic enfranchisement group, of tampering with absentee ballots, but the claims were dismissed by officials.
Several years earlier, the group had helped elect the county’s first Black sheriff using a novel tactic — encouraging Black voters to use absentee ballots. Although completely legal, the method fueled suspicions of cheating. In the years that followed, white residents began to regularly accuse the Bladen County Improvement Association of election tampering, although there was no evidence.
Then, in a rare event, state officials threw out the 2018 election of Mark Harris, a Republican, to the congressional district that includes Bladen County, after local Republicans were accused of committing absentee-ballot fraud. McCrae Dowless, the political operative at the center of the scandal, has been charged with obstruction of justice and illegal possession of an absentee ballot. The case is in progress.
After that case became public, a leader of the Bladen County Improvement Association reached out to Ms. Chace, offering to explain the local political landscape where these allegations had become common, and Ms. Chace returned to the community.
She first looked at the claims against the association, interviewing poll workers, political boosters and officials from the North Carolina State Board of Elections. She also reviewed absentee ballot envelopes from nursing home residents that some claimed had been tampered with, and she pored over years of election fraud complaints and documents from the state board of elections. She couldn’t find anything to suggest that the group had cheated.
“We were lucky because we got a lot of documents,” Ms. Chace said.
Nancy Updike, the producer of the series, said they also studied the history of racism in election fraud allegations, which have been used to disenfranchise Black voters. Ms. Updike said that in U.S. elections, the idea of Black people casting votes has frequently led to claims from white people about voter fraud.
“From Reconstruction until now, white Americans have repeatedly conjured the idea of Black Americans voting fraudulently in order to keep Black people from voting,” she said.
Ms. Chace’s reporting also showed how damaging these allegations of fraud can be. For the Bladen County Improvement Association, the claims were difficult to shake and led to animosity and divisions within the organization. In the end, the years of unfounded allegations have eroded the group’s political power.
“The charge of election fraud, untethered to any evidence, is a truly dangerous force at work in America right now,” Ms. Updike said. “And in this one place you can see how it tore up people’s lives as well as pulled at the fabric of this place.”