Revised on: 11.9.2018 at 10:21 a.m.
Posted on: 11.7.2018 at 01:47 p.m.
By Jefferson Weaver
A stack of provisional ballots could make all the difference in one of the toughest races for Columbus County Sheriff in years.
Unofficial tallies show Republican challenger Jody Greene currently leading incumbent Democrat Lewis Hatcher 9,353 to 9,301 votes. However, a problem with some ballots in Tabor City led to a nearly two-hour extension in one polling place. A number of other provisional ballots were cast in polls where voter information could not be confirmed, or conflicted with county records. Under state law, those 150 provisional ballots have to be handled separately.
The County Board of Elections will confirm the eligibility of those voters in a special meeting Nov. 15, and count those votes at that time.
Hatcher, who was taking some time off to rest after the election, spoke briefly with The News Reporter Thursday. He said that even though he was behind, he is “confident”.
“I trust the people of our county,” Hatcher said, “and no matter what happens, I know God is in control of it.”
Hatcher said he was aware of reports of irregularities at Tabor City and elsewhere.
“It’s a shame that that happened,” he said. “I know there were issues, but it seems like they could have been resolved better. I don’t think there was anything out of order. Whenever you turn people away at the polls, they aren’t likely to come back.
“Human and mechanical errors happen,” he said, “but I hope they weren’t as extensive as we keep hearing. Things do happen, however, and that’s why I encourage people to vote early. With early voting, you have time to find problems and handle them.”
Hatcher said he is comfortable with whatever the final vote tally determines.
“I have always had a very spiritual attitude about this,” he said. “If I get it, that’s fine. If I don’t, it wasn’t meant to be. Either way, I am comfortable. I would like to continue serving the people of the county, and if the vote goes my way. I will do my utmost to maintain the highest ethical standards of the office. I have nothing to be ashamed of.
“If I don’t win – I can catch up on a lot of things I haven’t had time to do for a long time. I want to keep serving, though. I’m not giving up. I love the people of this county, and I love serving them.”
Greene said he received a number of complaints from voters who were turned away or had to cast provisional ballots in the same precincts where they voted with no problems in the May primary. He was also dissatisfied with the way the ballots were handled in Tabor City.
“I’m with the Highway Patrol,” he said. “I have been driving the road between Whiteville and Tabor City for 20 years. It takes 15 minutes between the two towns. How is it that it takes two hours to get the right ballots there?”
“My son was told they had run out of ballots when he went to vote,” Greene said. “I went to the Board of Elections to find out what was being done to contact the people who were turned away, and they told me those voters were being called.
“When I asked Mrs. (Carla) Strickland had they called my son, she said they had. Then I asked her how they had called him — his telephone number wasn’t on his voter registration. She told me then they were trying to contact the voters who left. They didn’t know how many there were, or who hadn’t gotten to vote.”
Greene said he also had to escort one voter to the poll in Chadbourn, after she was told she had not changed her registration information from Lake Waccamaw. At the Lake polling place, however, she was told she was registered in Chadbourn, Greene said.
“She was wearing a ‘Jody Greene’ T-shirt,” Greene said. “I honestly think that had something to do with what happened.”
Greene said his campaign intends to file a formal complaint.
“We had people who have been voting for 40 years being told they weren’t registered,” Greene said.
“I don’t care who the candidate is — the process has to be fair and follow the rules for everyone. When people lose confidence in the system, it doesn’t work.”
Both Hatcher and Greene are career law enforcement officers, with the Highway Patrol.
Greene is currently a first sergeant with the Patrol, but served as a narcotics detective and canine officer with the sheriff’s department from 1991 until 1995. Prior to that, Greene was with the Chadbourn Police. He lives in Evergreen.
Hatcher also has a long career in law enforcement, having started his 43 years behind the badge with the Clarkton Police after his discharge from the U.S. Army. After four years with the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, he went to work for the Highway Patrol for 26 years. Hatcher retired from the NCSHP to go to work as chief deputy for then-Sheriff Chris Batten, a post he held for seven years. When Batten retired in 2014, Hatcher was appointed interim sheriff, and in November of the same year won his first election to the office.
Greene campaigned on a plan to combine community policing with “focused deterrence” strategies, which focuses on repeat offenders and gangs. He pledged to increase cooperation with the school system, encouraging relationships with students and faculty, as well as making better use of security technology.
He also said he plans to re-emphasize training, and making sure officers “fit” with their assignments. He also plans to work with the county to improve salaries and increase retention of officers.
Hatcher has sparred with county commissioners for most of his time in office over retention, salaries and equipment. Prior to the election, Hatcher said his plans included enforcement of drug and property crime laws, and working with other agencies to come up with alternatives to incarcerating addicts, thus reducing overall property crime. He pointed to the creation of CCOAT (Columbus County Opioid Action Team), a coalition of the sheriff’s office, health department, and schools, as one of the ways officials are combating opioid abuse in the county.
He also said that increasing salaries and providing more manpower on the streets are vital for protection of the county, and said proper management of budgeted resources and additional grants can help add positions and increase pay for deputies.