SBI investigating mishandling of primary ballots in Durham

BOE chairman says incident is unrelated to election night problems - McCrory campaign calls his comments "troubling"

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
Voters wait in line to vote early at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durham

DURHAM – In a press conference on Tuesday the Durham County Board of Elections chairman Bill Bryan said they see no evidence of impropriety in the 90,000-plus ballots filed from Durham in the eleventh hour on election night. This as all 100 counties across the state are still counting their absentee and provisional ballots. On Friday, each county is scheduled to certify their results in individual 11 a.m. meetings.The late ballots from Durham, filed around 11:45 on election night, pushed Attorney General Roy Cooper ahead by less than 5,000 votes. They also raised concerns from the McCrory campaign, which on Friday filed a “malfeasance” complaint through GOP lawyer Tom Stark. The formal protest with the Durham County Board of Elections says that the Durham BOE tabulated approximately 90,000 ballots using allegedly corrupt data from machines that suffered critical errors during early voting and on Election Day, which may have given inaccurate results. “Mr. Stark may have some, but we have seen no evidence to that effect,” said Bryan on Tuesday morning.This isn’t the first time Durham has been at the center of an election controversy. In May, it was discovered that a Durham County Board of Elections employee counted 200 provisional ballots twice from the March primary. That incident is currently under investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation, but Bryan insisted to media Tuesday that the incident of tampering with ballots was unrelated to the Election Day problems. “It’s pretty troubling that the chairman of the Durham County Board of Elections, which is currently under investigation for mishandling ballots in the March 2015 primary, can claim that nothing improper happened before conducting a thorough investigation or manual recount,” said Ricky Diaz, of Pat McCrory’s campaign. “Instead of inexplicably trying to protect their damaged reputation and prejudging the outcome, the Durham County Board of Elections should focus on ensuring votes are properly counted. If they are right, there’s no harm in a recount of the precincts in question, and if they are wrong, the recount will correct errors and resolve legitimate concerns.”The 90,000 Durham ballots in question are not among the provisional ballots being counted this week. Provisional ballots are offered to voters whose voter status and precinct cannot be determined at the point of casting the ballot. The Durham County Board of Elections is scheduled to continue counting about 1700 provisional ballots, but there are reportedly 50,000, plus absentee ballots, still to be counted statewide. Each provisional ballot is verified for eligibility to vote before it is counted. What Happens Next?If the county-by-county canvassing on Friday fails to show a margin of greater than 10,000 votes, a recount will likely be demanded. Still, if the recount does not yield a clear winner and voting irregularities prove persistent, a more dramatic contested election could be the result.Precedent exists for such a contested statewide election as recently as 2004. That year, vying for N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction, Democrat June Atkinson held an approximate 8,500 vote lead over Republican candidate Bill Fletcher, out of a total of more than 3.3 million votes cast.Fletcher eventually challenged the legality of 11,000 provisional ballots cast by voters who were not registered in the precinct where they voted. Even though the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that out-of-precinct voting was authorized in the law, they also held that a constitutional provision allowing the legislature to decide disputed elections for Council of State offices, including governor, was no longer valid because the General Assembly had deleted the legal procedures for doing so in 1971.Dominated by a Democrat majority in 2004, the legislature responded to the ruling with a law that removed the courts and substituted the General Assembly as the body to decide a disputed election and specifically allowing out-of-precinct voting.While Republicans filed a lawsuit in federal court to challenge the new law, then-Attorney General Roy Cooper was able to get the suit thrown out. Subsequently, the lawmakers exercised their newly self-appointed power in siding with Atkinson over Fletcher, declaring her winner of the statewide race for superintendent. Should the race between McCrory and Cooper remain too close to call after all redundancies are accounted for, the McCrory campaign could have enough evidence of voting irregularities to call for a contested election, making the the North Carolina House of Representatives the final decision maker in who occupies the governor’s mansion for the next four years.