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By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor
I had the privilege of talking with Charlotte journalists Michael Graff and Nick Ochsner about their new book The Vote Collectors: The True Story of the Scamsters, Politicians, and Preachers behind the Nation’s Greatest Electoral Fraud. It’s the story behind the voting corruption in Bladen County that invalidated the 9th District congressional election of 2018, and political operative McCrae Dowless, who was at the center of it all.
But the book goes much deeper — into the history of how race, voting rights and electioneering have intertwined for well more than a century there, and into the political dysfunction and real threats to democracy in the rural areas and small towns of the South.
Graff is the editor and newsletter author at Axios Charlotte. Ochsner is the chief investigative reporter at WBTV.
The hardcover book drops on Nov. 16 (you can pre-order it here), but the e-book is already available (look for the “Buy This Book” box on this page).
Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
EF: What was your experience with this story before you guys got together and decided to write the book?
MG: At the time that this all broke out, I was a freelance writer, just working for lots of different publications, and I was working for Politico on the Bladen County story. So I went down there for almost a week during the height of the drama … and I actually ran into Nick outside the courthouse.
I’ve known Nick for years and just thought, “It’s funny to run into you here, in Elizabethtown.” … And then over the course of my few days reporting there, I would be in rooms interviewing somebody and the phone would ring, and it would be Nick, calling the same person I was interviewing.
NO: My favorite story is the story of you interviewing Pat Melvin when McCrae calls.
MG: Yeah. Pat Melvin, who was a big funder of the Republican Party in Bladen County — I’m in his office interviewing him, and the phone rings, and Pat, like most people there, had it on speaker. And everybody had been chasing around McCrae Dowless, and out of nowhere this voice appeared on the phone. And it was McCrae Dowless, talking to this guy I was interviewing, and you know, the voice is unmistakable. The Southern drawl is unmistakable. And in the conversation one of them said, “You know that other fellow — Nick Ochsner? Ochsner or something? — wants to talk to you, too.” So it was just a lot of coincidences that week. And then two months later, Nick and I were talking about writing a book proposal.
NO: I came to the Bladen County story a little later than others. I was resistant to covering it. Frankly, I didn’t quite think it was going to be a story because I grew up in Hope Mills, 30 minutes away from Bladen County — I say the closest point of civilization you get to Bladen County. And frankly, there have always been questions and suspicions about shenanigans going on in elections since I was a kid. And you know, we saw what happened with the (Pat) McCrory claims in 2016, and those didn’t go anywhere. So when this happened, I was skeptical that anything would ever come of it, other than a day or two of headlines.
So I actually started covering the 9th District scandal because I had a big story air as all of that was starting to unfurl — it was a pretty big, damning story on the DMV commissioner — and no one paid attention to it, at all, because everyone was talking about the 9th District stuff. And I was like, well, crap.
So I happened to be in Raleigh for the night. My mom was in Raleigh, so I always call her house my Raleigh bureau. And I decided, I’m just gonna go to Bladen County tomorrow and see what I can see … And because I’m from around there, I have contacts. I’ve got an old family friend who’s kind of in the southeastern North Carolina political machinery a little bit, so that friend put me in touch with another guy that I kind of know that’s a good friend of his, and that good friend of his put me in touch with another person. And so I’m leaving Raleigh, driving to Bladen County with no plan, and on the phone with this friend of a friend, and telling him who I am, and how I’m from around there, and I think there’s probably more to the story than what has been reported and I’m just trying to get at that — and could he put me in touch with McCrae Dowless. He knows McCrae. And he said, “Oh, probably not. McCrae probably won’t want to talk to you. But I’ll call him and ask him.” So I mean, I’m an hour from Raleigh, almost to Bladen County at this point, and the guy calls me back and says, “All right, here’s McCrae’s number. He’s expecting a call from you any minute.”
And so I call McCrae, and I’m on the phone with him for about 30 seconds, and he goes, “Well, you comin’ to the house, ain’t ya?” I’m like … “Uh, yeah. What’s the address?” And I don’t think I got an actual address. I think he said it was on Bladenboro Airport Road, and my first thought was, “Where’s Bladenboro? And I can’t believe it has an airport.”
So literally the first person in Bladen County I talked to for the 9th District scandals was McCrae Dowless, and it only got weirder from there, and more interesting from there. And so I ended up spending two or three weeks nonstop down there. We rented an Airbnb, it was me and a producer and another reporter, my colleague, David Hodges — that was his first week on the job. We gave him one day to get his gear in Charlotte, and then that Tuesday, he was in Bladen County. And it became very apparent very early on that there was a lot here. I think I was standing in McCrae’s kitchen one day, and the latest crazy thing had happened, and now I think, “Someone’s got to write a book about this, and maybe it ought to be me.” And here we are.
So how did you two get together to write it?
NO: You know, we saw each other in Bladen County, we kind of talked about reporting in Bladen County back and forth a little bit, and then, you may recall, at the 9th District hearing that February, that Lisa Britt got on the stand and testified about how she came to do an interview with me. She lied under oath … she had some allegations that suggested a relationship between McCrae and me and characterized it in a way that was not accurate. It led people to question my integrity and my journalistic ethics as a reporter, and specifically as it relates to whether or not I had McCrae Dowless as a source. At the time he was still a confidential source. So I couldn’t publicly discuss that. I was getting some flack from some people who wanted to know more about that, and I couldn’t answer due to the confidential source.
And my wife was out of town that weekend, and Mike texted me Saturday night and said, “Hey, how’s it going?” And I was like, “Not great!” And his brother had just bought a house, and he said, “Why don’t you come over to Kenny’s house and have a beer?” I said, “I would love a beer right now.”
So I came over, and we’re drinking beer and kind of lamenting the crappy last couple of days I’ve had, and I think we kind of reached a conclusion: “Well, why don’t we just write this book together?” And the rest is history.
I wanted to get at that dynamic because you had been working on the story for different outlets. I’m interested in how that collaboration went and what you learned from it.
NO: There’s a big difference between writing for Politico magazine and reporting for the 6 p.m. news, right? I think he went out with a different mission than what I had. And I say that because I think this partnership between Mike and me has worked so great because Mike comes at the work from a totally different perspective. We’re totally different, and our differences complement each other. I like to think of myself as the guy roughing out the shape of what the book will look like, kind of building the walls. Mike comes in and finishes it all up and puts the beautiful details on there and really helps polish the story. Because I think like a local TV guy, and Mike thinks like one of the best long-form writers in the country.
MG: I actually don’t like to write. I like to report. I always think that the way I interview people in the reporting actually makes me a better writer.
So Nick knocked down every door and broke down every wall, and then once I was able to get in the room with folks, they tend to tell me everything. I’ll wait people out for hours until they tell me the parts of the story that I’m hoping to hear. Nick is an incredible investigative reporter. He does things that I am too timid to do. I would never chase somebody through a parking lot with a camera like Nick does. He’s incredible at just confronting people with reality and putting a mirror right in front of their face, literally, in the form of a camera lens. Me, I like to slowly let them unwind their stories.
So our partnership really was, Nick formed all the initial relationships, and then I got there, and I would interview them, and Nick and I would drive back from Bladen County and I would say, “Did you see this weird thing on the wall?” All these little details. And Nick would be like, “Wow, you know, that’s funny.” So I think we just have a complementary set of skills.
I mean, I started reporting on the book with Nick and he already had the discovery file, the criminal discovery file that everybody else would have wanted. It was hundreds and hundreds of pages long. I didn’t have to do that. Nick got it. So it just worked out really well because I would dig through the phone records and find, like, “Oh my gosh, did you know McCrae texted so-and-so on this day? We gotta find out what they said to each other!” Things like that. It was just an incredible collaboration, actually, in terms of reporting.
On the writing side, the book is divided into three parts. The first and third part are mostly in this century … the past dozen years or so. And Nick wrote first drafts of that, both of those sections, essentially. We would just do a chapter at a time, and I would come in after him and say, “All right, we said he went to jail that day, but where was it? What road? What did it look like? What time of year was that? Was the fair going on?” Things like that. Because I really wanted to put the reader in the prison bus with him, you know? And so I would come in and do that.
The second part of the book is a huge history section that traces the story of elections back to Reconstruction, and I did a lot of that work. I had done a lot of that on my own, previously. I’d always wanted to write a book on eastern North Carolina anyway — I’ve always just thought it was a fascinating place. So I had notes from years and years of just going to libraries and things like that. I just knew — I knew about the Klan rolling through towns during the 1870 election. And I knew that there were clear connections between Reconstruction and what happened in 2018. And so I spent a lot of time in libraries, in the newspapers, trying to draw those dotted lines between the two time periods.
I’d always thought that my eastern North Carolina book would be called “East of 95.” And I thought it would just be this story of the people in places from Rocky Mount east or Fayetteville east — so this is a different turn, I guess.
So Mike, where did you grow up?
MG: I grew up in Southern Maryland. My dad was a fisherman on the Chesapeake. And so I grew up around water, and you know, the kind of life they live in eastern North Carolina is very familiar. It reminds me of home. But I also was a reporter at The Fayetteville Observer for four years. So — Nick likes to tell this part of it, but I don’t — Nick was in high school when I was a reporter at The Fayetteville Observer.
NO: I went to the high school down the road from the Observer, so we were within a couple blocks of each other when I was in high school.
You’re just a lot younger… So it sounds simplistic to condense what you just said, Mike, but it sounds like complementary skills are the key to your collaboration.
MG: Yeah. You know, Nick went to college with (WSOC reporter) Joe Bruno. And they’re friends. But I don’t think Nick could have written a book with Joe Bruno. It would have been a totally different type of book. … I’ve always looked at stories from 10,000 feet, and Nick was the one, you know, dredging up all the details that I could use from 10,000 feet.
NO: And then the other thing … we have a deep respect for each other and for each other’s work. And so there was no pride of ownership over changes. You know, there were no egos in our working relationship with one another. And I think we had to have that as well.
MG: There was one night that Nick and I were talking about the book in a hotel room in Fayetteville. Maybe it was a hotel room in Lumberton. We switched locations a couple of times. But there’s one night I think Nick and I definitely had differing opinions about how we were going to approach the structure of the book. This was really early. And then it just kind of worked itself out, and Nick actually came up with the structure of present day, go back to the past, present day, in a conversation we had a couple months later. But that was the only moment where I think we actually disagreed to the point where I was like, all right, we should probably stop talking about this right now. But our friendship is far deeper now because of this book. And yeah, I think it has something to do with the fact that there were no egos at play. I don’t pretend to believe that I can do what Nick does. I don’t think that he does the same with me.
I did want to ask you guys: If I listened to Zoe Chace’s podcast (The Improvement Association, produced this past spring), what will I get from your book that I don’t know?
NO: They’re two totally different things. I’ve told people: If you liked those podcasts, you are going to love our book. And first and foremost, Zoe didn’t have access to McCrae Dowless starting in late November, early December of 2018. And so McCrae’s perspective is missing from the entire 9th District story, which our book has. But more importantly, Zoe took a pretty narrow — deep, but narrow — look at racial politics in Bladen County, which is a really important piece of our story. And she centers it around the Improvement PAC, which obviously is a pretty big character in our story as well.
But our book goes back much longer, both in recent history and then takes a deep dive into how we got here. Because we approached this project from, 2018 didn’t happen in a vacuum, and it didn’t happen by accident. It was the culmination of a lot of different forces combining together, and what are those things, and how did this happen? And so, in the near term, we go back to 2010, and we work our way forward. And in the long term, we go back to Reconstruction and work our way forward. So you know, because we’re a book and not a podcast, we can take that bigger view. We can tell that deeper story. And I can say that because I’m a TV reporter, and I’m not used to being able to do that. We take a much more holistic approach to the story of Bladen County politics.
MG: The podcast is great, by the way. I think it’s terrific. (NO: Yeah.) We had a lot of respect for her, too. And she blurbed our book … she wrote a nice little review of it. So yeah, huge respect for what Zoe did, and the relationships that she was able to form with some of the folks … one of them in particular stood us up at a McDonald’s on a Sunday. He said he was going to meet us there, and then when I called him and asked where he was, he said he was at a funeral. I don’t know how you forgot about a funeral. But Zoe had a really good relationship with some folks that we tried, and we have a good relationship with folks that she was trying to get, and it was just, you know, I couldn’t wait to hear what she had done. And I thought it was terrific.
She focused on the Bladen County Improvement Association, which is a 30-some-year-old organization. We actually go back to why Black political caucuses were formed in the first place. You know, the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs (now the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People) was the formation of this. C.C. Spaulding formed that. C.C. Spaulding, well, his family’s from Bladen County. He’s a descendant of George Henry White. And you’re like, holy cow, all of these things just connect, and so we just went back a little farther than she did on the reason that these Black political caucuses exist in the first place.
NO: You can draw a straight line from what happened after Reconstruction, and you can watch the dominoes fall all the way to 2018. More than 100 years. It’s pretty remarkable to watch that.
The most surprising thing you came across in your reporting for the book?
MG: The most curious scene in the book to me is, the first time I sat down with McCrae’s lawyer — Nick brought me into her house — and she’s a Southern lawyer with, you know, she has a big cat on the roof, for whatever reason. And she looked at me, and she said, “You’re like John Cusack in ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.’” And I thought, what? And then she handed me the movie and made me go rewatch it.
And so I went home and rewatched it, and the whole movie is about this reporter who comes to a town and you know … I’m like, “Oh, does she mean I’m gonna be party to a murder of some sort? Like, what is going to happen here?” Random interactions like that just happened all the time. And so that was the most surprising moment for me, right? I realized I was in for a one hell of a story.
NO: We knew some of this, but our book really puts a fine point on it. The most surprising or disappointing takeaway in the book is the fact that people have known what is going on in Bladen County and Bladen County elections for years leading up to 2018, by both Republicans and Democrats, and didn’t do a thing about it — and the people who could have taken action to stop this years earlier, didn’t. And that becomes crystal clear in our book.
EF: Is there a lesson you hope people take away from this?
MG: To give a damn about the places that are forgotten in the cities where most of us live these days. I mean, part of the reason that this happened is because of the strains on life there. It’s just a fact. People in places that are forgotten are easily taken advantage of. I can’t remember the number, but we figured out — by per capita income — you know, how many people these two political campaigns, the Democratic campaign and the Mark Harris campaign, could have funded, and it’s a lot. So, you think about the money that’s ballooning in politics these days and the desperation that’s falling on places like Bladen County, it just makes them ripe to be taken advantage of, and I think we really, really ought to pay attention to that — because when you don’t have a lot of money, you either play the lottery or you go to the little gambling venues, or you take jobs working in political campaigns, and you’re willing to do things that you might not otherwise do.
NO: Playing off of that, I think my biggest takeaway is the importance of local media. Right? And the role that local media plays or what happens when there isn’t a robust spotlight on a town or community from good journalism. There are people who work hard to cover Bladen County, but there aren’t enough of them. When you start getting down there and pulling back the curtain, what you found was often not very pretty. I think it’s a reminder of the role that journalists play, and the important role that we have to play in small rural communities, just as important as the role we have in bigger towns and bigger metro areas.