Discussion on whether Durham County should count its paper ballots will continue during a second hearing Friday.
The Durham County Board of Elections agreed Wednesday to hold an evidentiary hearing to consider a request to recount paper ballots from the general election.
The re-election campaign for Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who trails Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper by roughly 5,000 votes more than a week after the elections, has seized on the dispute in casting doubt on results in Durham and elsewhere.
The board voted 2-1, down party lines, in favor of the Friday hearing. Republican members Bill Brian and Margaret Cox Griffin voted in favor of holding the hearing, and Democrat Dawn Baxton voted against it.
Brian said he supports moving forward after Thomas Stark, general counsel for the state Republican Party, met what Brian said was the very low standard of probable cause to proceed to a evidentiary hearing. Stark said he filed the protest as a resident of Durham.
Stark contends the Durham elections board engaged in “malfeasance” with regard to ensuring the accuracy of votes counted election night. Durham County officials had to manually enter information after they were unable to upload data from six cards that saved information from ballot tabulators.
After the hearing, Stark submitted a subpoena to the elections board asking for a copy of the tapes and memory cards from the six locations in question. The subpoena also seeks information from across the county on how many people voted and how many cast provisional ballots.
Regardless of whether there is a recount, Stark said, he doesn’t expect any significant voter changes that would influence the governor’s race.
“This is not a contest to decide the outcome of the election; this is just about keeping the process clean,” he said.
A business systems analyst at the State Board of Elections reviewed the results from five of the cards, from early voting sites, and compared them to the results manually entered by Durham County elections officials.
The comparisons showed discrepancies in a local county commissioner race (one extra vote for James Hill in the manual entry); the Durham County vote on museum bonds (five fewer “yes” votes on the manual entry); the statewide race for superintendent for public instruction (two more votes for Republican Mark Johnson in the manual count); and the N.C. Court of Appeals (10 additional votes for Republican Phil Berger Jr. in the manual count).
There were no discrepancies found in the governor’s race.
Stark pointed to the conflicting information as his evidence for a recount.
“It would seem that it would be a low bar,” Stark said. “If you have any disagreement in counts, it’s appropriate to check the count.”
The board will hold the evidentiary hearing at a meeting already scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday to certify the final voting totals for Durham County.
Before Wednesday’s hearing in the Durham County commissioner chambers, people from Durham in Defiance, a coalition of community organizations, gathered outside the building and meeting room holding signs saying “Defend Durham votes.”
Organizer Anthony Maglione said the effort seeks to show support for the local Board of Elections from individuals who are concerned that McCrory and the Republican Party would seek to invalidate Durham votes.
“We are going to show up again,” Maglione said of Friday’s hearing.
An affidavit from Brian D. Neesby, the state board’s business systems analyst, along with Wednesday testimony from company officials that supply software and voting machines across the state, gave insight into what went wrong when Durham County officials tried to upload the tabulators’ memory cards.
Durham elections officials couldn’t pull the data off the cards on election night. In response, officials reviewed the information on the tabulators’ paper tapes and entered it manually.
Five of the cards were from one-stop early voting locations, and one was from Precinct 29, at Glenn Elementary School.
The voting information was recorded on the memory cards, Neesby’s affidavit states, but officials weren’t able to upload the information from five of the cards due to the large number of votes in the Durham County commissioners’ race.
Due to a software memory limitation, no more than 65,353 votes can be uploaded from the cards to the software in each race. The cards are read onto two bytes of memory.
The Durham County commissioners’ election was decided during the March primary since all the candidates were Democrats. During the general election, voters could still vote for the five winners. The large number of votes cast in the race at five early voting sites prevented the information to be uploaded due to the system limitation, election officials said.
The issue with the sixth card was likely related to a card’s internal battery that died after being removed from the tabulator machine, state election officials said. It is common practice to enter the results manually from the tape when that happens.
Stigma for Durham
Based on Neesby’s affidavit and other evidence, Brian said he doesn’t see a basis for the evidentiary hearing but voted in favor of the hearing to err on the side of giving Stark an opportunity to make his case.
“This is a highly charged issue,” Brian said. Stark and others feel like there is “something fishy” going on here, Brian said.
“On the other hand, there are a lot of folks in the community that don’t understand why Durham always needs to be the one that recounts its votes,” he said.
“This is a community with a large African-American population,” he said, and because of “a stigma associated with it, somehow in counties that have majority African-American population, we have to recount twice because we can’t trust them. I don’t appreciate that at all. I don’t appreciate the comments that have been made by various people in the public that cast aspersions on Durham.”
State Rep. Graig Meyer, whose district includes parts of Durham and Orange counties, spoke on behalf of Cooper’s campaign. Meyer said Stark presented no evidence of impropriety. He said the process needs to move forward quickly so the outcome of the election can be known.
Meyer said Republican efforts to highlight Durham’s previous election challenges — including the mishandling of some provisional ballots in the March primary that the State Bureau of Investigation is looking into — is part of a process of undermining the credibility of African American voters and communities.
“I believe that in this case all the evidence shows that Durham has followed election law closely and carefully, and the votes are being counted appropriately,” he said.
Stark said tying the issue to race is “outrageous.”
“This is about the integrity of the process,” he said. “You have to ask yourself why Democrats always come in and claim race when everybody addresses the integrity of the process. Is that because they are afraid they will be found out or something? I don’t know.”
The Durham County Board of Elections will hold an evidentiary hearing Friday at 11 a.m., in a meeting room on the second floor of the Durham County Human Services Building, located at 414 E. Main Street. Doors will open at 10:30 a.m.