State Board calls for Durham election recount

Published December 1, 2016

by Matthew Burns and Mark Binker,, November 30, 2016.

The State Board of Elections on Wednesday called for a recount of more than 90,000 votes that Durham County reported late on Election Night because of technical difficulties.

The 3-2 vote along party lines, which came after a three-hour hearing, was a victory for Gov. Pat McCrory's campaign, which has lobbied for the recount ever since the Durham County votes provided the surge Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper needed to overtake McCrory in the gubernatorial race.

Although most observers say the recount is unlikely to change the results of the race, it will be one of McCrory's final chances to pull within the 10,000-vote threshold where he could request a statewide recount.

"We are pleased that the State Board of Elections has recognized the voting irregularities in Durham County, and we will respect whatever the results show," McCrory campaign manager Russell Peck said in a statement. "We ask that this is done immediately."

Cooper's lead had finally topped the 10,000-vote level on Wednesday. With vote totals finalized in 96 of the state's 100 counties, Cooper was 10,257 votes ahead of McCrory.

The margin will change as those final four counties report and could conceivably retreat back under the 10,000 mark, but throughout the county canvass process, Cooper's lead has steadily grown.

"Roy Cooper's lead has now grown to over 10,000 votes. Game over. It’s time for Governor McCrory to concede. It's clear there is no path to victory for Governor McCrory. It’s time for Governor McCrory to accept the election results and respect the will of the voters," said Trey Nix, Cooper's campaign manager.

The dispute in Durham County started on Election Night, when local officials resorted to transcribing vote totals from printouts to send to the state because the computer system couldn't read the memory cards from several voting machines. Thomas Stark, a Durham voter and a lawyer for the state Republican Party, challenged those vote counts, saying they were unreliable, and called for a recount.

The Durham County Board of Elections rejected Stark's protest two weeks ago, saying he had provided no evidence that the vote totals were wrong. State officials found only six transcription errors in the Durham County numbers, and none affected the governor's race.

Still, Stark appealed to the State Board of Elections, and the McCrory campaign emailed supporters, urging them to bombard the state board with emails and phone calls asking for the Durham County recount.

Stark called a recount "a perfunctory matter" that elections officials should want to remove any doubt over the final tally in the governor's race.

"The integrity of elections is important to the people of North Carolina, and if you have ballots sitting right there and you can go count them in a relatively short period of time, why wouldn't you satisfy yourself that you had an accurate result?" Stark asked the state board during the Wednesday hearing.

Kevin Hamilton, a lawyer for Cooper's campaign, responded by noting state law requires "substantial evidence" of wrongdoing or voting irregularities that would cast doubt on an election before calling for a recount, and he said Stark "utterly failed" to produce any evidence at all.

"Mere suspicion ... is not enough. Uncertainty is not enough," Hamilton said, asking the board to deny Stark's appeal.

Democratic state board members Joshua Malcolm and Maja Kricker echoed Hamilton's stance at the conclusion of the meeting, saying the board had uncovered no evidence of irregularities in Durham County.

"Difficulty reporting results is not a tabulation error," Kricker said.

But Republican board members said the technical problems Durham County experienced on Election Night and how local officials resolved them was the very definition of an irregularity.

"What harm would it do to scan those votes and count them?" board member James Baker asked. "There was enough irregularity to make people wonder."

Board member Rhonda Amoroso said the board has ordered new elections in races with smaller irregularities than that seen in Durham County.

Bill Brian, the Republican chairman of the Durham County Board of Elections, apologized to the state board for the controversy.

"We had to make a decision," Brian said, saying officials decided to wait to tabulate the votes from the few troublesome memory cards until the end of the night so they could report all of the other votes in a timely manner.

"I wish we could have done it simultaneously, but there are just so many hands," he said. "If we made a controversial call on Election Night, it was that. I stand by that call now, but I do understand the anxiety that must have caused with the various campaigns when that large volume of votes hit."