Nearly two months have passed since voters went to the polls in Winterville, the small Pitt County town near Greenville, to select its mayor and two Town Council members.
On Tuesday, Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway decided the victor in one of the council races — a contest that resulted in a one-vote difference.
Ridgeway held a hearing on Dec. 29 to determine whether the Pitt County Board of Elections exceeded its power when it decided to decertify the results from the race between John Hill, Ricky Hines and David Hooks.
The case was unusual from the start.
The election was held in November to fill a seat that became vacant last year after a councilman died.
On Nov. 7, Hill was the unofficial winner with 421 votes, eight more than Hines got that night and 47 more votes than Hooks received.
After the provisional and supplemental absentee ballots were added to the totals, Hines won the race by one vote — 425 to Hill’s 424. Hill requested a recount and before that was done, it was discovered that 10 people who should not have received ballots for the Winterville elections received them. The voters were in a neighborhood approved for annexation into the town limits, but the annexation had not happened before the election.
Nonetheless, the recount and official canvass resulted in the same result. Hines won by one vote.
Hill could have filed a protest to remove the ineligible votes, but he did not.
On Nov. 22, the day before Thanksgiving, the Pitt County Board of Elections certified the results, and Hines as the winner.
Those results, though, have not been certified by the state elections board.
After talking with staff at the newly merged state elections board and ethics commission, the Pitt County board requested a new election and attempted to revoke its earlier certification of the Town Council race results.
Hill has said he had no involvement with the further actions by the county board or state elections officials. He has congratulated Hines for his victory.
North Carolina hasn’t had a statewide elections board since June because of a lawsuit pending in state court. Last year, state lawmakers merged the elections board and ethics commission and created a board with an even number of members, who have not been appointed.
Gov. Roy Cooper has challenged the lawmakers’ changes, saying they exceeded their authority in the merger of the boards and took away powers that previous governors have had to appoint members to the state elections board.
That puts the staff of the merged agency in the position of forwarding cases to Superior Court judges in Wake County that might otherwise have been decided by the elections board.
The winners of races in Boone went to court in mid-December for an order allowing them to take their seats because a protester argued that the winners should have to wait until the elections board had members.
Ridgeway decided the Winterville case from the bench on Friday, but issued his order on Tuesday.
“Mr. Hines was harmed when he was illegally kept from taking the office to which he was elected,” Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said in a statement after the order was signed. “We have structures established by law for protesting elections. When voters choose not to file such election protests, elections must be finalized. We appreciate the court’s recognition that elections need finality and that elections boards cannot revoke a certificate of election.”
The Winterville council member is set to be sworn in on Jan. 8.
“I am grateful to have resolution on this matter. We have important work to do on behalf of the citizens of Winterville and I look forward to serving my community as a councilman,” Hines said in a statement.