RALEIGH — Incumbent Democrat Bob Etheridge said that he may seek a recount for U.S. House District 2, where Republican challenger Renee Ellmers held a narrow edge of 1,646 votes out of more than 188,000 counted in unofficial results Wednesday.
Ellmers claimed victory late Tuesday night, and the Associated Press concurred, declaring her the winner just before midnight. But Etheridge, who is seeking an eighth term, refused to concede.
On Wednesday, as election officials across the district refined their counts, Ellmers' lead dropped by 453 votes. That let the gap between them dip below 1 percent of the vote total, at 49.52 percent for Ellmers to 48.64 percent for Etheridge.
The swing was tiny, but critical: State law dictates that the margin must be less than 1 percent for congressional candidates to get a mandatory recount if they seek one.
Etheridge said he had informed the State Board of Elections that he would request a recount if the gap stays below 1percent after the counties in the district finish their official vote canvassing Nov.12.
"We really feel that the way the trend is going now, we're going to win this race," he said at a news conference Wednesday in front of the elections board headquarters.
He said his campaign had heard that there might have been some voting irregularities.
Also, he said, thousands of provisional and absentee ballots - including many from service members - had yet to be counted.
"Any declaration of victory is premature and really a disservice to the people of the 2nd District who have yet to have their vote counted," Etheridge said.
"As you know, procedures are in place to ensure accuracy, integrity and that the right of one person, one vote is honored," he added. "It is incumbent on all of us to let this process work. And a declaration of victory does not change that, and I'm sure Ms. Ellmers shares that same sentiment."
Ellmers' campaign manager, Al Lytton, said in a telephone interview that Ellmers had no problem with making sure that the results were completely legitimate.
"A recount isn't something we planned on or would have wished for, but obviously it's his right to ask for it, and we want every vote counted properly and accurately, too," Lytton said.
Etheridge declined to describe the reports of irregularities, saying that he would leave it up to the State Board of Elections to look into them.
Question in Sampson County
State elections officials said they think the reason the margin narrowed Wednesday is related to a problem with vote totals from Sampson County.
The board planned to dispatch a team to Sampson today to count 2nd District votes cast there and audit the results, said Johnnie McLean, deputy director of the state board.
"It appears that when the election results were reported and updated today, that results from a precinct, or several precincts or even one-stop voting might have been duplicated, but at this point, without seeing all the information, we just don't know," she said.
U.S. House District 2 takes in all or part of Chatham, Cumberland, Franklin, Harnett, Johnston, Lee, Nash, Sampson, Vance and Wake counties, including a section of southern Raleigh.
It includes only part of Sampson, which is considered a "swing" county that doesn't heavily favor candidates of either party.
There are 13 precincts in Sampson included in District 2, and a total of 5,909 ballots were cast in those precincts, not including early voting, provisional ballots or absentee ballots.
Timing of a potential recount
Etheridge can't formally seek a recount until after the counties formalize their results Nov. 12.
If there is a recount, it would be more than two weeks before the results are clear. Recounts at the county level would likely occur Nov. 17, 18 or 19, depending on when Etheridge files a formal request, McLean said.
The results would be made public immediately, but a winner would not be formally declared until the board's Nov. 23 meeting.
How it came to this
Etheridge, 69, a farmer and small business owner, was first elected to the seat in 1996. Ellmers, 46, a registered nurse and medical clinic director supported by the tea party, was the first challenger to give him a serious contest.
He hurt his chances in June when two young men approached him on a Washington street with video cameras, asking whether he supported President Barack Obama's full agenda. He asked repeatedly who they were, then grabbed one of the men by the wrist and then by the neck.
Video of the incident appeared on YouTube and went viral. Etheridge quickly apologized, but a poll afterward showed Ellmers had apparently pulled even with him.
Asked Wednesday how much the incident had hurt his chances, Etheridge said he had no idea. But, he said, TV attack ads funded by a conservative group played up the incident and had taken a toll on his support among voters.
"A lot of money was spent in this race on her behalf," he said, "And I assume that helped get it out."
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