After the State Board of Elections effectively rejected Republican protests about ineligible voters, Durham County is the last point of contention in the unresolved governor’s race – and the N.C. Republican Party said Tuesday that a recount there could resolve the election within days.
The board will meet Wednesday afternoon to review a request for a recount of early votes in Durham County.
As the final absentee and provisional ballots are tallied this week, Democrat Roy Cooper had a lead of around 9,800 votes late Tuesday over Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. McCrory is entitled to a statewide recount if the margin remains under 10,000 votes.
Cooper got 79 percent of the vote in Durham County, and the Democratic stronghold has been a frequent target of Republican election complaints.
Republicans want about 90,000 Durham ballots to be recounted by hand, arguing that they were counted by faulty machines on Election Day. The Durham County Board of Elections, which like all county election boards is controlled by Republicans, rejected the request, saying there was no evidence of irregularities or misconduct.
“We have an opportunity to bring the 2016 election to a close within the next few days,” NC GOP executive director Dallas Woodhouse said at a news conference Tuesday morning. “Durham County is going to recount its votes, or the entire state will if that is an option.”
Woodhouse also rejected speculation that the state legislature might intervene and use its power to decide the governor’s race. “That will never happen,” he said, adding that suggestions to the contrary are “demagoguery at the highest order.”
“They would never award the election to somebody who didn’t have the most votes.”
McCrory’s campaign has said it won’t seek a statewide recount if Durham holds one.
A statewide recount is still expected to occur in the state auditor race, where Democratic incumbent Beth Wood leads Republican Chuck Stuber by about 5,500 votes. Woodhouse says Stuber will request a recount even if McCrory doesn’t.
Durham and Bladen counties are now the only remaining counties with active election complaints after a State Board of Elections directive was issued Monday.
That memo told county election officials not to consider any challenges to a voter’s eligibility that were filed after Election Day – meaning complaints filed by Republicans in dozens of counties must be rejected. The deadline for filing such complaints had passed before any were filed, the board ruled. The state board members were appointed by McCrory.
The memo also told counties to count any votes they’d thrown out as a result of the complaints. Counties will now count ballots cast by people who were ruled to be ineligible felons or early voters who died before Election Day.
Woodhouse said that decision is troubling and that after the election is final, the state should revisit its efforts to keep ineligible voters from participating. He noted that it’s difficult to challenge a voter’s eligibility before Election Day. “It’s in nobody’s interest to have the rules not followed,” he said.
Even before the memo by the state board, several counties that examined the complaints had rejected them and Republicans had not pursued appeals.
Cooper’s campaign called the Board of Elections directive “a devastating blow to the McCrory campaign and further evidence that there is no path to victory for Gov. McCrory.”
Asked if a Durham recount had the potential to turn the election in McCrory’s favor, Woodhouse said “I do not believe that the only reason to recount and look at things is that the outcome may change.”
The GOP is focused on Durham because an investigation of absentee ballots in Bladen County involves a few hundred votes at most – not enough to change the statewide results.
The roughly 90,000 votes under scrutiny in Durham were added to the statewide tally around 11:30 p.m. on election night. McCrory, who is seeking a second term, appeared to be leading statewide until those votes were added to the total; Cooper, North Carolina’s attorney general, has been leading in the count ever since.
The delay came because election workers entered information from ballot tabulators’ paper tapes after they were unable to read data from six memory cards that also came from the tabulators. Election software couldn’t aggregate data from five of the cards because the number of votes per race exceeded the software’s memory limitation. A sixth card may have had a battery problem. Experts on the equipment told Durham officials that the paper tapes are reliable, but the GOP wants to double-check.
“It’s not unreasonable to see Durham County – in an open, fair and reasonable way – recount those votes,” Woodhouse said.
The N.C. Democratic Party and the Cooper campaign will have the opportunity to speak about the request at Wednesday’s Board of Elections meeting.
Neither the Democrats nor Cooper responded to questions from The News & Observer about their plans Tuesday, but an attorney representing both organizations spoke at the recent Durham elections board hearing. Kevin Hamilton said the Republicans presented “empty accusations and speculation” in an effort to undermine public confidence in the process.
Another election challenge, a lawsuit filed by the conservative Civitas Institute challenging same-day registrations, will be heard in court on Friday. Because the group is calling for a delay in counting ballots cast using same-day registration, that lawsuit likely won’t affect the overall election outcome.