Durham News

Criminal charges could follow Durham County ballot investigation

State election officials investigating Durham County’s handling of provisional ballots in the March primary said criminal charges could follow the ongoing investigation.

Josh Lawson, general counsel for the N.C. State Board of Elections, said the investigation that will likely result in about 1,000 provisional ballots not being counted, includes a criminal component into crimes that include making fraudulent entry on elections books and certifying, delivering or transmitting false returns. The crimes are Class I felonies.

Since early April, the State Board of Elections has been investigating Durham County’s handling of provisional ballots during the March 15 primary.

A discrepancy was discovered within a week after the local canvass, Bill Brian, chairman of the Durham County Board of Elections, wrote in a statement.

The discrepancy appears to relate to the staff’s counting about 200 provisional ballots twice to get the ballot count to match, according to emails provided by the State Board of Elections. Provisional ballots are used when there are questions about a voter’s eligibility. They are often used when voters go to the wrong precinct or when their name can’t be found on the voting rolls.

After a brief Durham County Board of Elections internal investigation, the matter was referred to the State Board of Elections, Brian wrote. The State Board of Elections has been conducting an investigation and Durham County is cooperating fully.

The discrepancy won’t affect any of the local races.

About 1,900 people cast provisional ballots, according to information provided by the state, and about 1,039 of those votes were initially counted.

In an April email to a N.C. State Board of Elections official, Durham County Board of Elections Director Michael Perry wrote that a few days after the canvass, a temporary staff member asked to speak with him privately.

“She tearfully told me that when tabulating provisional ballots, she was directed by a BOE staff member to run some ballots a second time to get the ballot count number to match,” Perry wrote in the email.

After learning about the situation, Perry attempted to run the ballots again, and the ballots were about 200 short of the number of ballots cast.

“It was at this time that other temp staff members came forward stating that there was a tote of unopened and uncounted ballots present after everything was supposedly completed,” the email states.

Staff unsuccessfully searched for the ballots, Perry wrote.

“The regular staff member that was supervising the counting and tabulating operation did not provide any useful information, only stating that he didn’t know what happened to them,” Perry wrote. “Complicating the matter, the same staff member abruptly resigned on March 29.”

Kim Strach, executive director of the State Board of Elections, has indicated that she will likely recommend that the Durham County board re-canvass the election results without including the provisional ballots, Brian said.

Lawson said the State Board of Elections investigators have interviewed 15 staff members multiple times and have been communicating with the office of Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols. Lawson couldn’t say when the criminal investigation would conclude.

“We investigate until we get it right,” he said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges