The outcome of the contest for North Carolina governor hinges on the votes cast in an unknown number of ballots, which could trigger a recount and push the weary campaigns toward the end of the month.
Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper held a lead of 4,980 over Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in votes counted through Wednesday afternoon. But there are thousands of yet-uncounted votes from provisional ballots as well as from absentee ballots.
The N.C. Board of Elections hopes to know from county boards by Thursday how many provisional ballots were cast around the state and where. The provisionals could change the outcome of the election if a large number of them come from counties that are strongholds for either candidate, and are not offset by additional votes for their opponent.
Both sides have enlisted attorneys who specialize in election law to guide them through the painstakingly slow process of a recount.
Provisional ballots are not counted on Election Day. Voters can cast provisional ballots if there are questions about their eligibility or qualification to vote in a specific election cycle or on a specific type of ballot. Provisional ballots are held until the questions can be resolved and reported to the county elections board, whose members make a final determination. County boards are scheduled to certify the results on Nov. 18.
In the 2012 gubernatorial race between McCrory and then-Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, more than 22,000 provisional ballots were counted, and they favored Dalton by 1,700 votes. Democrats have traditionally voted by provisional ballot more than have Republicans.
On Wednesday, Wake County reported unofficially nearly 7,000 provisional ballots submitted and more than 2,000 absentee ballots to be counted. Mecklenburg County reported unofficially more than 3,600 provisional ballots submitted and 1,200 absentee ballots to be counted.
The runner-up in a statewide race can ask for a recount if the final count separates the two candidates by fewer than 10,000 votes.
While Cooper claimed victory early Wednesday, McCrory vowed to make sure every vote was counted. McCrory’s campaign raised questions about 90,000 ballots that weren’t counted until late on Election Night in Durham County, which put Cooper in the lead. The McCrory campaign said it had “grave concerns over potential irregularities” in Durham.
McCrory strategist Chris LaCivita said Cooper celebrated too early.
“The votes have been cast in the gubernatorial election, but many have yet to be counted,” LaCivita said in a statement. “Currently, there are tens of thousands of outstanding absentee, military and provisional ballots across the state, and claiming an outcome before the process has concluded is irresponsible and disrespectful to the voters of North Carolina whose voices have yet to be heard.”
A Cooper campaign spokesman, Ford Porter, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon.
“Last night, the people of North Carolina chose a new Governor with new priorities,” Porter said. “With all precincts reporting, we have a strong lead and are confident that once the results are certified, we will confirm last night’s victory. In the coming weeks, Governor-elect Cooper will be laying out an agenda for moving North Carolina forward.”
News researcher David Raynor and Charlotte Observer writer Jim Morrill contributed.
Gubernatorial race: What happens now?
The electorate hasn’t spoken until all the votes from Election Day, absentee, early and provisional ballots are counted and certified. Here’s how we get there:
▪ Absentee ballots are still coming in: Mail-in absentee ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day, and will be accepted until 5 p.m. Monday. Overseas and military absentee ballots will be accepted through Nov. 17.
▪ Hand-to-eye audits: Every county is required to conduct sample counts of randomly selected precincts and one-stop sites to confirm what the voting machines have tabulated. These hand-to-eye counts must be done in public. In addition, the state Board of Elections must conduct its own sample audit, which it did Wednesday afternoon and released the results.
▪ Provisional ballots: Each county elections board must meet to determine if individual voters who cast provisional ballots during early voting and Election Day are eligible. Provisional ballots are used when a potential voter doesn’t appear in poll books or if there are other questions. Counties were uploading the data to the state board’s website on Wednesday.
▪ Canvass: County boards must validate their election results at public meetings on Nov. 18.
▪ Recounts: For statewide offices such as governor, if the difference between the top two candidates is 10,000 votes or less, the runner-up can demand a recount after the county canvasses are done. The demand deadline is noon Nov. 22. The state board then sets a schedule for the counties to recount in open session. In all other contests, the difference between candidates must be within 1 percent of the total votes cast on that ballot item.
▪ And finally: On Nov. 29, the state Board of Elections has to certify the results of statewide, multi-district and judicial contests. Not until that canvass is complete are the election results official.