I was out for a run this morning1 and did something I have never done: I stopped dead in the middle of the street because a dude on a podcast said something so infuriating2 that I could not do anything other than marvel at it. Fortunately, there isn’t a lot of traffic on the upper part of Center Street during that part of the day and I came to my senses quickly enough to get out of the middle of the road before someone squished me.
The pod that nearly led to my squishing is The Improvement Association, which is the latest from the folks who produced Serial.3 The new pod isn’t about a murder case in which justice most definitely was not done; instead, it’s about election fraud4 in Bladen County, North Carolina.
The county’s name might be familiar5 because this particular cases made the national news. L. McCrae Dowless Jr., a Republican political operative, built a system to use absentee ballots in illegal ways to get his candidate elected to the U.S. House in 2018. He was arrested, indicted, and found guilty and then indicted for a different set of charges related to a different sort of fraud. The 2018 election was redone because it was not at all clear what the voters truly wanted.6
Reporter Zoe Chace isn’t re-investigating that. Instead, she’s taking a much deeper look at race and power using the lens of local elections in order to see how the system operates.
In Bladen County, like in a lot of the South, a significant percentage of the electorate is Black. Also like in a lot of the South, a significant percentage of those elected to office are white. This is not an accident. We can see this, yes? I don’t have to wander off on an explanation of Jim Crow, white supremacy, and entrenched racism? Can we take that as a given?
The good people of Bladen County do not take it as a given. One resident7 early on in the pod implies that, since the civil rights movement happened, Black people should just let it go, already. Others make it clear that they think Black residents aren’t being called on their misdeeds because no one wants to look like a bigot.
What misdeeds? Glad you asked.
The Improvement Association in the pod’s title is a Political Action Committee (PAC) made up of Bladen Countians who want to see Black people hold office. They hand out sample ballots, endorse candidates, and influence elections legally. When they overstep the law, because election law is confusing, they quickly change their practice.
They also get Black people elected to important offices, like Sheriff. The white people who are used to power just being handed to them8 cannot wrap their heads around how this could happen. So, clearly, there must be some sort of fraud.9 10
In the first three episodes, Chace interviews a few white residents about recent elections. Each accuses the PAC of illegal conspiracies, which Chace can find no evidence of.11 When she points out the lack of evidence, each insists that fraud clearly happened but a) won’t tell her who they suspect or b) tell her she’s too blind to find it because c) she’s a member of the media.
(If this reminds you of the Big Lie a bunch of Republicans are letting themselves be told about the 2020 presidential election, that’s partly her point. Believing that the “other side” cheated because you don’t like the result is just part of our system now. Dems did it in 2016, too. But the big difference is that we didn’t mount an insurrection. WHICH IS A BIG DIFFERENCE.)
Northeasterners like to believe that we are immune from the short of race-based shenanigans that took place in Bladen County. No, we don’t have the same kind of legacy of slavery that the South does12 and our systemic racism is of a different flavor. But when you get into the more rural areas of Yankee-dom, they look an awful lot like Bladen County.13
Several of my fellow elected officials are convinced that the 2020 vote was tampered with. No, not for their elections because it is only right and good that they should hold office. But in the election of anyone who doesn’t pass their narrow muster of who should be in office, those races must have been compromised somehow, even if they were on the exact same ballot and counted by the exact same machines as their race.
Up here, “who should be in office” doesn’t break down along racial lines,14 mostly because the percentage of Black people here is very small. But it does break down on rural v. urban and native v. foreigner lines, to say nothing of the gender divides.15 If you are a white Republican guy, no one will question the integrity of your election. But clearly you must have cheated if you are anything other than that.
The problem is that there is absolutely nothing you can do to convince the die-hards that there wasn’t fraud. John Salka, my state assemblyman, writes about it on his Facebook page16 and his supporters rally around the lie. I can hear that same certainty in the voices of a few of my colleagues on the county board. I can hear the same thing in Chace’s interviews with Bladen Countians.
I don’t know how we ameliorate this gap. No matter how much evidence of a free and fair election there is, there are people who will not believe it, if only because believing it would mean admitting that those who have had easy access to power might not have it anymore.
My hope is that Chace will round out the pod with three easy solutions to this problem, which we will implement and everything will be fixed forever. And, yet.
Do you know how to convince those voters who are convinced fraud is rampant in our system that it is anything but? Leave a comment below and save democracy.
Hey! Did you know I also write books? There are three you can buy right now.
Have I mentioned lately that I ran a marathon?
I honestly can’t remember the exact quote but it was in the middle of episode three
also very good — but that is not a hot take, given how long ago it came out.
both actual and alleged
Or not. I don’t know your life.
I have to confess something: this woman’s accent so closely resembles the accent of a woman I am related to who would say the most virulently racist things in that sweet-as-pie tone that I might pre-emptively judge anyone from that region as being a virulent racist. This is 100% a me-problem but I want to lay it out there.
the white people
There was fraud — but not on the part of The Improvement Association. The fraud was committed by Republican election operatives.
Chace teased a surprise turn in episode four so maybe there will be non-Republican fraud?
The state board of elections found no evidence either.
We still benefited from it, of course, and are complicit in so much
There’s a story about the Sheriff’s race in North Carolina Chace tells in the first episode. The vicious small-town politics she describes were frighteningly familiar.
there are exceptions
I recently had a conversation with a local political party person and we realized that the most important factor was “are you from here?” Being gay was OK if you were a native. Being female will work if you’re from here. Being gay and female or from away and female are non-starters in most parts of the county.
and mocks anyone who tries to point out that there is no proof because he’s classy like that