“They pick these people who’ve self-destructed their life, then they’re guinea pigs for whatever comes along to make a dollar,” said Sarah Jane Benson, whose family owns a restaurant in Bladenboro. “If it hadn’t been McCrae, it’d been somebody else. They’d have found somebody else to do it.”
Out-of-town commentators have had fun with clips of people standing outside mobile homes in their socks, speaking in heavy Southern accents, but the sad truth is that regardless of how high up the fraud goes, the ground game is a portrait of poverty in America—people who need $100 for reasons that range from Christmas presents to opioid addictions going to the homes of poor and elderly neighbors who trust their ballots in the hands of strangers.
I didn’t come to look for election fraud; that’s more or less an accepted fact now. I came to understand what makes a county like this susceptible.
Some answers are plain. Bladen County is a petri dish of rural America’s problems: It has lost about 5 percent of its population in the past seven years, more than any other county in the region. It’s a farming community where the biggest employer, Smithfield Foods, runs the world’s largest pork processing plant, with 4,400 employees working in a factory that slaughters about 35,000 hogs a day. The company contracts with surrounding farms to raise the animals, and waste and smell are the focus of environmentalists and 26 lawsuits making their way through federal courts. Over the past three autumns, Bladen has been inundated by two of the worst hurricanes in history, Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018, leaving downtowns flooded and farmers without crops. And it’s a place where the rate of unintentional deaths due to drugs is about 29 percent higher than anywhere else in North Carolina.