Tar Heel Turmoil: What’s Next in North Carolina?

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[Image via all-flags-world]

Last week, I wrote about the Election Day struggles in Durham County, NC – but now a close race for Governor and a few other statewide offices has Tar Heel election officials contemplating what’s next in resolving the outstanding contests. The News-Observer has more:

Questions raised about vote-counting in Durham County are just part of the ongoing efforts to determine what votes count from last week’s general election and how they are counted.

Here’s a guide through the thicket of deadlines and hurdles ahead.

What’s the status of the gubernatorial contest?

Attorney General Roy Cooper has held onto about a 5,000-vote margin over Gov. Pat McCrory since results were counted on Election Day. That number has fluctuated as mail-in ballots have been received and counted. A relatively large number of provisional ballots have yet to be counted.

What other statewide races are close?

Democratic State Auditor Beth Wood leads her challenger, Chuck Stuber, by roughly 3,000 votes. Democrat Josh Stein has a larger lead, more than 20,000 votes, in the race for attorney general against Republican Buck Newton.

Why are they still counting votes?

Absentee ballots were eligible to be counted if they were postmarked by Election Day and received by the end of business Monday (Nov. 14); military and overseas ballots are being accepted through Thursday.

Then there are some 60,000 provisional ballots, which are the biggest unknown factor right now. Commonly, more than half of those ballots are found to be ineligible.

Voters can cast provisional ballots if there are questions about their eligibility or qualification to vote. Those ballots are sealed in envelopes and held until the questions can be resolved.

County election staffs are spending this week culling through those envelopes of provisionals and recommending which ones are eligible and which are not. The county boards have been making final decisions on those ballots in open meetings. Those decisions must be made before each county’s final votes are certified, which has to happen in open meetings on Friday.

The State Board of Elections is scheduled to certify all the results on Nov. 29.

Any chance of a recount?

In statewide offices such as governor, if the difference between the top two candidates is 10,000 votes or less, the runner-up can demand a recount after the county canvasses are completed. Nov. 22 is the deadline to call for a recount.

In the governor race, McCrory can call for a recount unless provisional ballots increase Cooper’s lead beyond 10,000 out of the 4.5 million votes cast for those two candidates.

By sometime on Friday, it’s possible that we will know how many provisional votes the candidates received and whether it changes the margins in the governor’s race and any other contests.

What’s at issue in Durham County?

The Durham County Board of Elections will hold a hearing Friday morning to consider a request to recount paper ballots from the general election.

Thomas Stark, general counsel for the state Republican Party, contends the Durham elections board engaged in “malfeasance” with regard to ensuring the accuracy of votes counted election night. Durham County officials have defended their work, which involved manually entering information after they were unable to upload data from six cards that saved information from ballot tabulators.

Data from five of the cards could not be uploaded to software because the number of votes per race exceeded the software’s memory limitation. A sixth card may have had a battery problem. Officials instead entered the information from the tabulators’ paper tapes.

Regardless of whether there is a recount, Stark said he doesn’t expect any significant changes that would influence the governor’s race.

The Durham County Board of Elections will hold an evidentiary hearing Friday at 11 a.m., in a meeting room on the second floor of the Durham County Human Services Building, located at 414 E. Main Street. Doors will open at 10:30 a.m.

What’s the situation in Bladen County?

Officials have been looking into handwriting similarities in more than 100 mail-in absentee ballots since before Election Day in response to a large number of write-in votes. They included votes cast as straight Democratic Party tickets and a write-in candidate for soil and water conservation supervisor.

A forensic document examiner was brought in by Republican interests and on Tuesday he reported there were indications that at least 167 mail-in ballots were written by seven people. The examiner said he might find more if he had sufficient time. He noted there were about 400 ballots with that write-in candidate’s name and about 275 envelopes under scrutiny.

Some of those whose handwriting has been examined were paid by a local community association that receives N.C. Democratic Party funding to encourage voter turnout. It is legal to help someone fill out a ballot but that must be disclosed. Few if any such disclosures were made in these instances. Similar handwriting was seen in those signing that they had witnessed the absentee ballots.

The Democratic Party says the issue is confined to a single, nonpartisan, local contest.

That last issue – similar handwriting on absentee envelopes – could lead to calls for investigations in other counties, adding to the drama. [Local expert Gerry Cohen notes, however, that notaries and election office staff often witness multiple ballots so this could generate more heat than light in places like Wake County.]

The bottom line? Our election system is big enough that trouble always seems to find someone in a national election … and this year, trouble is traveling Tobacco Road.

There will be heaps more about this in coming weeks – stay tuned …

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