Johnston County had a primary election that it shouldn't have. Here's what happened.

Johnston County didn't need to hold a school board primary on May 8. That's good news for the two candidates who thought they had finished out of the running.
Johnston County didn't need to hold a school board primary on May 8. That's good news for the two candidates who thought they had finished out of the running. sbolejack@newsobserver.com

Johnston County held a school board primary on May 8.

It wasn't supposed to.

Under the rules for Johnston's nonpartisan school elections, a primary is required only when the number of candidates "is at least three more than twice the number of seats being elected."

This year, three seats are up for grabs, so Johnston would have needed nine candidates to force a primary (3x2+3=9).

Just eight candidates filed, but Johnston still held a primary to narrow the field to six candidates for the general election in November. Under the rules, "the purpose of the primary, if one is required, shall be to reduce the number of candidates to twice the number of seats open."

Leigh Anne Price, supervisor of Johnston elections, said the primary snafu was her mistake. "It's my fault," she said by phone on Tuesday.

Instead of doubling the number of open seats and adding three, "I doubled it plus one," Price said. "Our interpretation of what the law says was wrong."

"I feel awful," Price said, acknowledging that school board candidates spent money this spring that they could have saved for the fall.

The N.C. Board of Elections discovered Johnston's mistake while reviewing a related matter in another county.

"By our math, the threshold number triggering a primary would have been nine candidates," the board said in a letter to Price and the county attorney. "The ballot included only eight candidates, and it may be that the primary should not have been held and that all candidates should now proceed to the general election."

And that's exactly what will happen, a happy result for incumbent Butler Hall, who thought he had finished out of the running when he placed seventh on May 8. Candidate John Radford finished eighth.

Hall was attending commencement this past Friday at Johnston's Early College Academy when he received a phone call from the county's Board of Elections. "I did not take the call then because of the commencement service," he said.

But he learned soon enough that he had lost nothing on May 8. "Before I could get home, I received several calls regarding the 'primary news,' and I was trying to process all that I was being told," Hall said in an email Sunday night.

"I was certainly surprised," Hall said. "It took a while for me to come to terms with the very unexpected turn of events."

Johnston election observers were surprised when Hall finished a distant seventh on May 8.

"As the returns from the primary election were being reported, I knew things were not going to go well for me," he said.

Without elaborating, Hall said events of a personal nature had made it hard to campaign with the effort needed to win election in Johnston, one of North Carolina's fastest-growing counties.

"My situation for the fall will be much different than it was during the spring," he said. "I have received so many calls from people encouraging me to run and to run hard. It will be different in the fall as far as effort is concerned."

Jason Barbour finished fourth on May 8. For November, he would have preferred a field of six candidates, not eight.

"It will make it more difficult just because Mr. Radford and Mr. Hall will get votes that would have gone to one of the other six candidates on the ballot," he said.

Incumbent Todd Sutton said he saw little difference between six or eight candidates. "I just need to concentrate on my campaign and make sure all of the voters understand my position on making Johnston County Public Schools a safe and innovative district for their children to attend school," he said.

Sutton, like others, took the primary snafu mostly in stride. "It gave me a good practice run for November," he said.

Still, Sutton wishes he could have saved his primary dollars for the fall campaign. "Absolutely, I would have loved to have saved the $1,500 I spent for the primary," he said, "not counting the time and energy put forth to prepare for the primary."

Barbour fretted less about the money. "I personally spent $4,700 so far," he said. "I would have spent the money anyway in the fall. Only thing I have lost is a few signs."

"Mistake or not," Barbour added, "this will not stop me from pushing my platform for school safety, better pay and benefits for our classified staff, reducing school overcrowding and being fiscally conservative with taxpayer dollars."

Former teacher and school administrator Terri Sessoms was the frontrunner on May 8. The unneeded primary didn't bother her much.

"My volunteers have reached out to me over the weekend to let me know they believe their efforts have been worthwhile, and they are ready to go again," she said.

Price, the elections supervisor, promised that the primary formula is now etched in her brain. "I bet I won't do it again," she said.

Scott Bolejack: 919-829-4629, @ScottBolejack

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