NC recount: It could have been worse

Posted December 6, 2016

The N.C. State Board of Elections hears and appeal related to recounts in Durham County.  Nov. 20, 2016.

— The 27 days between Election Night and Monday's concession video by Gov. Pat McCrory at times felt like a legal odyssey that showed few signs of ending.

Through legal challenges by outside groups, recounts and suggestions the General Assembly might settle the election, one of the most frequent questions our @NCCapitol team got was some version of, "Is this the closest or longest recount ever in a governor's race?"

The short answer is not really, although it does appear to be unique in North Carolina history.

McCrory, a Republican, lost to Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper by 10,293 votes out of 4.71 million cast in the race. That's a slim 0.2 percent margin, but slightly outside the state's current recount threshold.

Thanks to Steve Case, a senior reference librarian at the State Library, we know you have have to dig back to the 1800s to find an election that's comparable to the McCrory-Cooper showdown. For example, in 1872, Republican Tod R. Caldwell edged Democrat A.S. Merrimon 98,132 to 96,234. That was a 1,898-vote margin, but a full percentage point – five times the relative gap between McCrory and Cooper.

Despite such 19th-century close calls, Case adds in an email that he "found no evidence that any of them were subject to recount or failed to be certified in a timely manner."

Modern mischief

In the pantheon of closely divided modern political campaigns, the Florida "hanging chad" recount debacle involving Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election surely enjoys pride of place. The Minnesota U.S. Senate election in which Democrat Al Franken won over Republican Norm Coleman, which took eight months to resolve before Franken could be seated, was also something of a standout both for rancor and time it took to resolve.

Minnesota also offered one of the two post-2000 gubernatorial campaigns that outstripped North Carolina in terms of delays. In 2010, Republican Tom Emmer conceded to Democrat Mark Dayton on Dec. 8, five weeks after Election Day. That race, which did involve a recount, saw Dayton with a 0.4 percent edge over Emmer, wider than the margin between Cooper and McCrory.

During the recount period, Emmer's election team challenged a number of ballots in an effort to have them thrown out of the count, similar to efforts by Republicans in North Carolina this year to challenge certain voters. In the Minnesota recount, many of the challenges were considered "frivolous."

However, Washington State is home to the most contentious effort to overturn a recent gubernatorial election result. While Democrat Christine Gregoire was sworn in as Washington's 22nd governor on Jan. 12, 2005, her Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, pushed legal challenges to her election until early June.

Similar to North Carolina, the Washington case also involved claims of voter fraud. A judge found those claims had little, if any, merit.

Although Republicans didn't press their claims in court this year, the North Carolina GOP did bring allegations of voter fraud to the forefront. By and large, those claims were dismissed by local and state boards of election with the exception of a specific instance in Bladen County, which the State Board of Elections referred to prosecutors for investigation.

Old-time trouble

Ned Foley, a Ohio State University professor who quite literally wrote the book on contested election results, points to a contested Kentucky governor's race from 1899 as a potential parallel to the North Carolina governor's race.

In that election, the Republican candidate won but saw his victory taken away by Democratic lawmakers, Foley outlines in a post on Medium. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn the legislature's actions, saying it could not countermand a decision that was essentially a "political question."

The nation's high court has since reversed itself on the idea it had to stay out of political quagmires in a decades-long process that culminated in 2000's Bush v. Gore ruling. In his Medium post, Foley speculated that history might come into play if North Carolina's General Assembly was called upon to decide the race and voted to hand it to McCrory.

However, for sheer razor-thin margin of victory, it's hard to beat Gov. Marcus Morton of Massachusetts, who won election in the 1839 campaign with 51,034 votes, exactly the number needed to achieve victory outright rather than have the race cast to the whims of the state legislature.

If that race hadn't cemented the nickname "Landslide" for Morton, the election 1841 surely did. That contest was close enough to throw the contest to the legislature, where the House gave him exactly the number of votes needed to send his election to the state Senate, where he was confirmed as governor for a second time.

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  • William Patterson Dec 6, 2016
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    pretty sure the only reason he decided to concede was because he had been contacted by the Trump camp and informed he was to be added to the cabinet of other losers