DURHAM — The Republican-majority elections board in North Carolina’s heavily Democratic Durham County decided Wednesday to consider any evidence showing that early-voting ballots could have been miscounted in the still-undecided governor’s race.
Tom Stark, the top attorney for the state GOP, offered little evidence at a packed elections board meeting that the votes were miscounted on Election Day, but elections board chairman William Brian Jr. said his protest deserves a deeper look at a more extensive hearing on Friday.
Stark is seeking a manual recount of 94,000 ballots cast before Nov. 8, which amount to about 60 percent of all Durham County votes in the contest between Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper.
Stark acknowledged a recount may have little impact on the outcome. Cooper holds a 5,000 vote statewide lead out of more than 4.5 million cast, according to unofficial results. The Democrat got nearly 80 percent of Durham County’s votes.
“This process will likely make minor changes, if at all. This is not a contest to decide the outcome of the election. This was just keeping the process clean,” said Stark, who said he’s pursuing the protest as an individual Durham County voter, not on behalf of the state GOP. “My reasoning was, if you have a question, you double-check. This is an important election.”
But a Democratic lawmaker speaking for Cooper’s campaign said Stark’s challenge of Durham County’s vote count before any other county in the state has deep implications in one of a deeply divided nation’s most deeply divided states.
“Mr. Stark has provided no evidence that there is any impropriety in the process of counting ballots,” state Rep. Graig Meyer, who represtents part of the county, said after the hearing. “I believe that we have seen the Republicans try and undermine the credibility of African-American voters and African-American communities for several years now and this is a continued part of that process. In this case, all the evidence shows that Durham has followed election law closely and carefully and the votes are being counted appropriately.”
Stark said he’s not clear whether he’ll seek court orders to inspect the vote data or what other evidence he might present Friday.
At issue is an equipment failure that forced election officials to tediously hand-record the 94,000 votes cast in Durham County during early balloting, with results not being reported until nearly midnight on election night. McCrory had been leading until then, but fell behind Cooper once those votes were added to the statewide results.
The fight comes amid the backdrop of a criminal investigation into the mishandling of more than 1,000 provisional ballots during Durham County’s primary election in March. The State Bureau of Investigation is investigating whether crimes were committed by counting some ballots twice. The miscount didn’t affect the primary’s outcome.
Brian noted that if Cooper’s lead remains fewer than 10,000 votes once statewide results are certified, McCrory would have a right to demand a statewide recount anyway. He said he decided to hear Stark’s evidence because the county has historically been expansive on hearing election complaints.
“This is a highly charged issue. Mr. Stark and others in this community feel that, and with some justification, that there’s something fishy going on here,” Brian said after he seconded his fellow Republican’s vote, overruling the objection of the board’s lone Democrat.
“On the other hand, there’s a lot of folks in the community who don’t understand why Durham always needs to be the one that recounts its votes,” Brian said. “There’s a stigma associated with it — somehow in counties that have a majority African-American population we have to recount twice because we can’t trust them. I don’t appreciate that at all.”