County boards should go on counting ballots in from the Nov. 8 election, the State Board of Elections unanimously voted Tuesday – and the authority over how they deal with challenges should remain at the local level.
At issue: The hotly contested gubernatorial race between Republican Governor Pat McCrory and his Democratic challenger, Attorney General Roy Cooper.
Cooper finished election night about 5,000 votes ahead, but McCrory refused to concede, insisting that all provisional and absentee ballots would need to be counted. As those ballots have been counted across the state, Cooper’s lead has grown to more than 6,600, according to the state board of elections. Cooper’s campaign announced Tuesday that their more up-to-date, county-by-county tally has the Cooper’s lead at more than 8,500 votes.
As Cooper’s lead has grown, the McCrory campaign and the NC Republican party has alleged widespread elections irregularities and voter fraud including dead people and felons who voted.
County elections boards across the state – all of which are controlled by Republican majorities – have rejected the McCrory campaign’s complaints.
That led his campaign to push for an emergency meeting of the state board, asking for their intervention. They declined to intervene in a special Sunday meeting, but met Tuesday to hear argument from both sides in the conflict and decide what if any action they should take.
State board members said local boards are simply in a better position to deal with local challenges.
“From the perspective of sheer volume of evidence and testimony, it’s not something we could do as a board,” said state board Chairman A. Grant Whitney Jr., a Republican. “They’re closer to the action and it would just be too enormous and undertaking for us to get involved at that level.”
Whitney said the board could conduct its own review, if necessary.
Board member James Baker, also a Republican and former judge from Madison County, agreed.
“Trying to determine fact in 50 to 100 counties would be too much,” Baker said.
But Baker was keen to get some facts cleared up Tuesday – like the difference between a protest and a challenge in elections.
A challenge, Baker said, questions the eligibility of an individual voters and must be filed with the local county board in a timely manner – not weeks after an election.
More seriously, a protest alleges systematic fraud or the failure of an entire election to be conducted properly.
“You can’t bundle up a few challenges and call it a protest,” Baker said.
That’s precisely what representatives for Cooper and the N.C. Democratic Party accuse the McCrory campaign of doing. They argued that late challenges – those not reported in a timely manner – should not be struck by county boards or the state board.
The board seemed to agree, issuing guidance to the counties that differentiates between challenges and protests. The board will also instruct local boards that ballots should be struck if they are shown to be part of a systematic fraud or failure of the local elections office to conduct the election properly. Otherwise, a series of late challenges shouldn’t be allowed to hold up the process of final vote canvassing and certification of the election.
But finality seems a long way away in this election.
A statewide vote count was supposed to be certified by Nov. 29, but the challenges and hearings by local board have slowed down canvassing and have pushed the likely final tally into early December.
On Tuesday McCrory officially filed for a recount, getting his request in under the deadline.
That will drag things out further. If Cooper’s verified lead grows to more than the 10,000 vote threshold for a recount, it isn’t clear McCrory would have grounds to demand one.
The conservative Civitas Institute has also filed a federal lawsuit to prevent a final count of votes, claiming same-day registration taints the electoral process.
More than 90,000 registered during same-day early voting before election day. The practice has been in place in North Carolina since 2007. Though the General Assembly tried to get rid of it as part of its voter ID law, a federal court overturned that law earlier this year.
The Civitas lawsuit claims there isn’t enough time for same-day registrants’ addresses to be verified before their votes are counted.
The board seemed to concede Tuesday that enough successfully contested ballots – adding up to enough to swing the election – could call for further action by the state board.
State Board of Elections General Counsel Joshua Lawson clarified that point for a scrum of reporters after the meeting.
“In the event that there are appeals of those individualized decisions, those would be added up together to determine whether there’s some sort of net effect on the statewide races,” Lawson said.
As things stand, the total number of contested ballots is a few hundred – not nearly enough to make a difference in the gubernatorial race, where Cooper’s lead is more than 6,000 a growing.
On Sunday the state board said it had identified 339 convicted felons who appear to have cast ballots – though they weren’t challenged in a timely way.
Speculation has grown in recent weeks that McCrory’s real endgame is to cast enough doubt on the conduct of the election that it will ultimately be decided by the North Carolina General Assembly.
Leaders in the legislature have said they see that as a “last resort” and expect the race to be decided through the traditional process.
Allison Riggs, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, spoke before the board Tuesday to outline some of the erroneous evidence presented by the NC GOP as evidence of widespread voter fraud. She pointed to instances wherein voters tagged as “felons” had in fact been convicted of misdemeanors and voters who were supposed to be dead simply had the same name as their deceased parents.
“North Carolina is the envy of the country in administration of elections,” Riggs said. “There is no evidence of systematic voter fraud.”