A State Board of Elections review Thursday of vote totals in Sampson County left incumbent U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge close enough to challenger Renee Ellmers to seek a recount in the state's 2nd Congressional District race.
Ellmers, a Republican from Dunn, led by 2,099 votes Tuesday night, but the next day, Sampson County elections officials discovered they hadn't reported totals from three of the county's four early-voting sites, said Johnnie McLean, deputy director of the State Board of Elections.
The Sampson officials corrected the error Wednesday afternoon without telling the state, and Ellmers' lead slipped to 1,646 votes out of more than 188,000 counted. That narrowed the gap to less than 1 percent of the total, which is the threshold allowing Etheridge an automatic recount, if he asks.
The correction also triggered puzzled phone calls to state elections officials, who dispatched a team to Sampson to audit the vote totals under the gaze of observers from both campaigns. The team determined that the numbers the county used Wednesday were correct, McLean said Thursday.
Ballots from the three early-voting sites added 1,727 votes to Etheridge's total and 1,274 to Ellmers'.
For Etheridge to get a recount, Ellmers' lead must remain less than 1 percent after the 10 county boards of election in the district declare the totals official Nov. 12. An attorney working for Etheridge filed a request Wednesday formally seeking the recount, contingent on the lead staying small enough.
Ellmers gets ready
Ellmers is apparently anticipating a tricky process. She sent supporters e-mail Thursday seeking contributions to help pay for the 11 attorneys her campaign has begun hiring to oversee the recount - one in each county and another for the state board.
"I need to raise $50,000 'yesterday,'" she wrote.
For now, Etheridge has one attorney, who is working pro bono, but will hire more help if he decides that's what it takes to ensure the votes are properly counted, said Mike Davis, a campaign spokesman.
Recounts in each county would likely be held in two weeks. Etheridge said Wednesday that he thought that after absentee and provisional ballots are counted that he will win. State election officials aren't sure how many such ballots have not yet been tallied, but Etheridge said there were thousands.
McLean said the recount law is important because the possibility of another big error always exists. The final vote totals, though, are unlikely to change the outcome of the election, she said, with typical swings in such cases staying in the single digits.
Visions of a recount fired up conservative radio hosts. Listeners of Rush Radio 106.1 WRDU-FM jammed the telephone lines of Secretary of State Elaine Marshall's office Thursday, urging her to stay out of the recount because, they said, she was too partisan.
Thing is, she can't get involved. North Carolina's secretary of state - unlike secretary of state offices in some other states - has nothing to do with running elections or recounts. In North Carolina, elections and recounts are handled by the State Board of Elections.
Marshall called the station twice to say she wouldn't be involved, according to Sam Swartz, her campaign spokesman.
Staff writer Rob Christensen contributed to this report.
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