If Republican Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby’s 406 vote lead survives a recount and he makes history as North Carolina’s 30th Chief Justice he can thank a once Democratic stronghold that has gone red for providing his margin of victory.
It was a long weekend for Dr. Phillip Stephens, chair of the Robeson County Republican Party. Once again, Robeson County was having trouble with an election. As most of North Carolina’s counties were finishing their final vote canvass Friday, November 13th, Robeson had a delay in counting of the votes because of an inaccurate listing of voters. Then there was a highly unusual Sunday Night announcement from the State Board of Elections that Robeson had “found” previously uncounted early votes that would now be tallied Monday.
Sadly, it’s par for the course for Robeson County, long known for political corruption in North Carolina. Robeson along with Bladen County were at the center of the 2018 Congressional race that had to be redone because of ballot harvesting.
As the Charlotte Observer noted in 2018:
In just the last five years, three local elections have had to be canceled and re-done due to allegations of vote-buying and other types of fraud.
One former sheriff, Glenn Maynor, only recently got out of federal prison for crimes of his that were uncovered during the mid-2000s in an investigation called Operation Tarnished Badge. The Fayetteville Observer reported that one in every six sheriff’s office employees was convicted in federal court of crimes ranging from perjury to kidnapping, drug dealing and armed robbery.
One local election had to be redone after the “Huddle House Hustle” vote-buying scheme, where voters were paid for their vote with coupons to a pancake chain.
On Nov. 13, most of North Carolina’s 100 county boards of elections were examining late-arriving absentee and provisional ballots and finalizing official vote counts through the canvas process. The results of North Carolina’s Supreme Court race teetered back and forth between current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat appointed to the post by Gov. Roy Cooper, and Justice Paul Newby, the court’s lone conservative voice. As County after county finished their reports, It became clear that absentee and provisional ballots cast in Robeson County would be the deciding factor, but complications with Robeson’s count would delay any final decisions until the following week.
Just like Dr. Stephens does whatever is required to care for his sick patients, he does whatever is needed for the GOP and to ensure, to the best of his ability, clean and fair elections in the county. Knowing that some unsavory characters might be involved in this year’s elections, Dr. Stephens spent much of his weekend surveilling the Robeson County Board of Elections headquarters looking for any odd comings and goings. He did not see any. But with so much on the line, it felt good just to be doing something.
North Carolina Supreme Court Justices Cheri Beasley and Paul Newby
As Friday, November 13 drew to a close, Beasley led Newby by just 36 votes out of nearly 5.4 million cast.
Republicans felt confident going into the weekend, however. While Newby was still down, the race was close. Robeson had 700 verified provisional ballots cast on election day. President Donald Trump won Election Day by a 3-1 margin. The provisional ballots should be enough to get Newby across the finish line for the narrowest of victories.
However, panic set in Sunday night.
In a November 15 press release, the Democratic-controlled North Carolina State Board of Elections announced that 1,951 ballots had been “found” in Robeson County.
The vote officials at the Pembroke Fire Department one-stop early voting sites failed to upload data to the state’s voting results database and therefore did not report one-stop early voting results on election night, like the rest of the state. During canvass reconciliation procedures, staff identified this oversight.
In hindsight this appears to simply be a case of human error. But with anxiety already at scorching levels over the contested race for president, and high levels of distrust and bitterness after a collusive settlement between Gov. Roy Cooper and Democratic allies to delay ballot deadlines and weaken ballot security measures, Republicans were apoplectic in their belief that the election was being stolen in front of their very own eyes.
For generations, Robeson County has been one of the most reliable North Carolina counties for Democrats.
In 2008, Barack Obama carried Robeson 56% to 42% against John McCain, in a year in which Obama and the Democrats won North Carolina for the first time in 32 years. Obama improved his performance in Robeson in 2012, capturing 58% of the vote, despite losing NC statewide to Mitt Romney.
However, Dr. Stephens started to see a shift beginning in Robeson County. Even though Robeson was 70% minority, culturally it was conservative. He started working to get the Native American population to register and vote for Republicans. Over time, Stephens would see Democratic party registration plummet in the county. According to the Civitas Institute voter registration tracker, from Jan. 2008 to Nov. 2020 Democratic Party registration dropped by 10% in Robeson, while the GOP registration increased by 7.5%. But Stephens knew it was not enough.
“Robeson is 70% minority, and even though Democratic registration used to be 90% and is now just 55%, a Republican is not going to win Robeson unless both Democrats & minorities vote for our Republican candidates,” said Stephens. “Robeson is one of the last places where you will find Blue Dog conservative Democrats. Democrats began to defect over NAFTA, over conservative cultural issues like the right to life and the Second Amendment.”
Republicans in Robeson had no record in modern times of winning a single race before 2010. They shocked the political establishment in 2010 by winning a state house seat and a single race for county commission.
In 2012, Republican Pat McCrory became the first GOP candidate for governor to carry Robeson County in 56 years.
In 2016, Robeson County shifted more to the right than anywhere else in North Carolina. Trump won it by 5%.
Robeson also elected two new Republican members of the state legislature. State Senator Danny Britt and Rep. Brenden Jones. Both were easily re-elected in 2018 and 2020.
“The Democrats in our county see the national Democrats on television, see their values and that is simply not where they are,” said Sen. Danny Britt. “We have made it okay for them to vote for Republicans, and in many cases, change registration and even run for office as Republicans.”
“These are good bible belt Christian values voters and they want to vote for people who hold those values,” said Rep. Jones. “We have also proven that Republicans are for the working man, and that is important here.”
As noted by Politico, in addition to being dominated by Democrats, Robeson is the most diverse rural community in the country. As of 2010, the local population was 40 percent American Indian, 24% black, 8% Hispanic or Latino, and 29% white.
Politico noted between 1997 and 2000, the area lost 41 percent of its manufacturing jobs. Trump’s anti-trade deal rhetoric gave working-class minority Democrats a chance to defect, and they did in droves. If Trump won every single white voter in Robeson—50% of whom are registered Democrats— mathematically he must have won nearly a quarter or more of the county’s minority voters.
Robeson County is so important now that both former vice president Joe Biden and President Trump promised to support formal full federal recognition of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. The Lumbee Recognition Act was given unanimous approval on November 16 by the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Members of the Lumbee Tribe have waited decades for the federal recognition and rights they have for too long been denied,” said Rep. Dan Bishop, R-District 9. “My first act in Congress was to sign onto legislation to award the Lumbee their full rights, and today I cast my vote strongly in support of the Lumbee Recognition Act.”
The recognition act now goes to the U.S. Senate. The president said during an Oct. 24 rally at the Robeson County Fairgrounds that he would sign the recognition act into law if it reached his desk.
But back at the polls Stephens was a nervous wreck. Would the late arriving 1,900 ballots from the Pembroke Fire Station, end the Newby candidacy?
Stephens looked at the printed “tape” results. Even he, with all the success of the past few years, was stunned. The early voting site, located near UNC-Pembroke had broken for Newby, adding 56 votes to his total. Newby would net an additional 81 votes through the provisional ballots. To Stephens relief and pride, Robeson had delivered once again.
Newby’s final winning margin after all the county canvasses were complete, was 406 votes. Robeson provided him a net 625 votes, while voting for every single statewide Republican candidate, an unfathomable outcome just a decade ago.
“I am glad we could play a role in Chief Justice Elect Paul Newby’s victory along with voting for the Republican candidate in every single race,” said Stephens. “I think our success shows political registration is not destiny. Demographics are not destiny. The coalition that is winning elections is bound by a set of culturally conservative values that include being pro-family, pro-free markets, pro- Second Amendment, and pro-law enforcement. The conservative Democrats here will tell you they did not leave the Democrat party, it left them. We have to continue to work every day to give them a new home, no matter how they are registered.”
Robeson’s political realignment is so historic that Dr. Stephens has chronicled it in a new book.
And with Robeson now delivering a new conservative Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, Stephens has a new chapter to write.