RALEIGH — The State Board of Elections dismissed a complaint originating from a rural North Carolina county that could have prevented scores of ballots from being counted in close races for governor and auditor.
The board voted 3-2 on Saturday to reject the protest from a Bladen County candidate, who with assistance from Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's campaign, alleged workers for a political committee that received Democratic funds fraudulently filled out absentee ballots.
Lawyers pushing the complaint suggested the board could throw out as many as 419 mail-in absentee ballots. They said evidence showed that a losing write-in candidate for soil and water conservation district supervisor showed up on nearly 170 ballots and may have originated from only seven people. The lawyers said none of those ballots should be tallied for any races.
Removing hundreds of ballots from Bladen County wouldn't have a major impact on the top races, but could play a role in whether there is a statewide recount. Democrat Roy Cooper leads McCrory by about 10,250 votes while Democratic State Auditor Beth Wood leads Republican Chuck Stuber by nearly 6,000 votes. A trailing candidate can receive a statewide recount if the margin is 10,000 votes or less.
McCrory Saturday requested that the State Bureau of Investigation look into voting irregularities in Bladen County, according to a news release from the governor's office.
"We have an obligation to ensure that every vote is counted accurately and that our elections process is conducted legally," said McCrory. "Any verified instance of voter fraud or other illegal activity should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
Republican elections board member James Baker joined the panel's two Democrats in dismissing the complaint, saying voters signed the absentee ballots. There was no substantial evidence to suggest the choices weren't their own, they said.
"I don't see how we could deprive them of their vote ... for every other race because we have some pretty serious misgivings about the soil and water race," Baker said at the close of four hours of testimony and discussion. The board's other two Republicans voted against dismissal.
The state board, which has been scrutinizing this fall's election and absentee ballots in Bladen County, did vote unanimously to send what its investigators have uncovered to the U.S. attorney in Raleigh. The board has not disclosed what it has found.
Roger Knight, a McCrory campaign attorney, said he didn't believe the dismissal would be appealed to court unless the margin with Cooper narrowed. McCrory said in a release Saturday night he would also ask the State Bureau of Investigation to examine the Bladen County voting to "ensure that every vote is counted accurately and that our elections process is conducted legally."
Irving Joyner, an attorney representing the Bladen political committee, said workers complied with state law in helping people cast write-in votes on absentee ballots and that adding a write-in candidate alone isn't unlawful.
McCrory has suggested he wouldn't demand a statewide recount if a review of more than 94,000 votes in Durham County showed the same results. Durham County workers began the recount Saturday — a day earlier than previously scheduled — and counted almost 20,000 votes. They resume work Sunday and are supposed to be done by Monday night.
The State Board of Elections ordered the Durham recount of ballots tabulated during early voting and at one Election Day precinct. Technical challenges on election night led to a late release of those ballot totals, flipping the statewide leader from McCrory to Cooper.
"We need to move forward and get this done," Durham board Chairman Bill Brian said Saturday. "I'm exhausted by it and I think (Durham) is exhausted by it."