Durham elections board: 'Not unreasonable' for new primary after ballots mishandled
Posted May 27, 2016
Durham, N.C. — The Durham County Board of Elections said Friday that it's up to state officials to determine whether to certify March primary results, but it's "not unreasonable" to order a new primary for the county Board of Commissioners after hundreds of ballots were mishandled.
State Board of Elections officials discovered the problem in April during an audit of primary results. While it's unclear exactly what led to the problems, it is clear that some number of ballots are missing, ballots that should not have counted may have been counted, some ballots may have been counted twice and the ballots in question have been handled in such a way that elections officials can no longer sort the ones that should count from those that shouldn't.
Durham County elections officials said they heard from numerous people who questioned the validity of the Board of Commissioners primary if, as state officials have suggested, more than 1,000 legitimate ballots are thrown out.
Ten Democrats ran for five openings on the Board of Commissioners – no Republicans ran, so the top five are unopposed in November – and incumbent Commissioner Michael Page finished sixth, trailing the fifth-place finisher by about 960 votes, according to unofficial results.
"The Board of Elections is mindful of the fact that it no longer has jurisdiction over this matter and does not wish to interfere with the ongoing process of the State Board of Elections," the Durham County board said in a statement. "It is very important for the State Board of Elections to understand and acknowledge the level of public anxiety relating to this matter. The Durham County Board of Elections does not have enough information in its possession to make any recommendations on this matter at this time. However, we believe it would not be unreasonable for the State Board of Elections to consider ordering a new primary for the Durham County Board of Commissioners to address the public's concerns."
The State Board of Elections will meet next Tuesday to address the issue and to certify results of primary races across North Carolina.
State officials have said roughly 1,900 provisional ballots were mishandled in Durham. Voters cast provisional ballots when they encounter an administrative problem, such as voting in the wrong precinct.
After an election, county boards of elections spend time sorting out which provisional votes should count – for example, cases where there is merely a clerical error – from those that should not – cases, for example, where a would-be voter never registered. Those provisional votes are then counted in the days and weeks following the election.
County elections director Michael Perry told state officials in an April email that two temporary staffers reported getting instructions to essentially run ballots through a counting machine a second time by a full-time county staffer. Later, elections officials counted the number of provisional ballots cast and came up short.
"It was at this time that other temp staff members came forward stating that there was a tote of unopened and uncounted ballots present after everything was supposedly completed," Perry wrote. "We are short approximately 200 ballots and have searched everywhere on our floor and the basement."
During the investigation, the county staff member who gave the apparently improper instruction resigned.
Durham elections officials initially reported that there were 1,918 provisional ballots cast, but they have physical records for only 1,841 of those ballots. They determined that only 1,039 of those provisional ballots cast should count.
State officials have been consulting with the Durham County District Attorney's Office on whether criminal charges are warranted. Tampering with election results is a felony.