BLADEN COUNTY, N.C. -- When a woman with bleach-blond hair and tattooed arms knocked on Datesha Montgomery's front door, telling her she was collecting mail-in absentee ballots, the stay-at-home mom did not ask too many questions.
Montgomery had not yet filled out her ballot, so she grabbed a pen and started going through the candidates. The 27-year-old had only made selections in two races when the woman became fidgety, saying she was running late for a Bible study class.
"I asked her, 'Do I need to fill the rest of it out?' " Montgomery said. "She told me, no -- the rest wasn't important. She would send it off for me."
It wasn't until just before Election Day that she realized her ballot was never turned in.
A month after the Nov. 6 general election, North Carolina's 9th Congressional District race is still in limbo as state election officials widen an investigation into allegations of absentee ballot irregularities in several rural counties. Last week, the state's board of elections declined to certify the election results that showed conservative Republican and former Baptist preacher Mark Harris clinging to a 905-vote lead. Instead, the board announced it would hold a public hearing to explore claims of fraud and irregularities in what could well become the most significant case of alleged electoral fraud in the U.S. in decades.
Much of the investigation into the vote has focused on Bladen County, a mostly rural area of about 33,000 residents that had the state's highest rate of absentee ballot requests, more than double the rate in most counties.
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Ginger Eason, a 45-year-old Bladenboro resident, said she was given a printed list of names by a Republican political consultant and paid about $75 to collect around 50 completed absentee ballots a week.
Eason said she worked for the consultant on and off for about two months, knocking on doors across the county and then dropping ballots off to the consultant at an office in a squat brick building next to a hardware store at the intersection of two highways.
"I picked them up and carried them to him," Eason said. "What he done after that, I don't know."
Eason estimates she collected about 100 ballots, but is listed as a witness on just 28.