You've probably seen sample ballots before being handed out by poll workers on election day, already filled out for the candidates they endorse. What you may not have known is that in some places, spots on those sample ballots are for sale to the highest bidder. The endorsement has little to do with where the candidate stands on the issue, and much more to do with how much money the candidate contributed to a Get Out The Vote committee.
We live in a day and age where an election can be decided by a few hundred votes, or in some cases, a much smaller margin. So when a candidate is approached with a way to virtually guarantee 500 to 1000 votes they wouldn't have otherwise, it can be a tempting proposition. Bladen County Board of Elections Chair Ray Britt says that's exactly what Get Out The Vote groups have been promising to candidates in his county for years.
"Get Out The Vote is where a candidate will contribute funding to some group or organization, and the services they receive are transportation for some of the voters, if they don't have transportation to actually get out and get to the precincts and vote...whether it be early voting or on election day it exists at both times, and as well as that, they have people that are there working under the canopies. They will have people that are assisting, as well as handing out sample ballots," explained Britt.
Those sample ballots are already filled out, marked for the candidates endorsed by the get out the vote committee. Voters may naturally assume those endorsements are based on a candidate's political persuasion, but that's not necessarily the case. Britt says candidates tell him it has more to do with how much they're willing to pay to secure a spot on the ballot. In the 12 years that Britt has worked on the Board of Elections, he's had plenty of candidates call him with concerns about this practice.
"They want to do the right thing," Britt says, giving us an example of a typical phone call. "I've been approached by such-and-such a group or committee, and they said that I can participate with their get out the vote, and to be able to get on their sample ballot, I have to contribute x amount of dollars. Is this ethical number one, and is it legal?'"
While a lot of people would say it's not ethical to buy your way onto a sample ballot, it is legal. In some places in our viewing area, the practice is thriving. There are a few heavy hitters in the Bladen County Get Out the Vote arena, like McCrae Dowless, Levi Roberts, and Bernard Robinson. The 3 have all been paid by high profile candidates, like District Attorney contender Butch Pope, Clerk of Court incumbent Niki Dennis, and former Sheriff's candidate Eric Bryan.
Right or wrong, Britt says these Get Out The Vote campaigns have a big impact on the outcome of the elections.
"Personally, I think we have lost a lot of people, primarily because a person newly running for office is not aware of some of these committees or groups, and doesn't know the loopholes or how to go about it," he said. "You take a good person, good morals, good understanding, good community ethics, that would be a good strong person for you, and they're sort of behind the 8 ball, because these groups and committees, the word is not control, but they have a big following, and that's hundreds of votes, maybe thousands of votes, that that person is already in the hole behind."
We tried to reach the candidates mentioned in this story for comment, but Butch Pope, Niki Dennis, and Eric Bryan didn't return our calls. Again, the Get Out The Vote practice is legal, but the way it's being run raises questions we would like to discuss with the candidates.