RALEIGH, N.C. — Democrat June Atkinson was sworn in as North Carolina's Superintendent of Public Instruction Tuesday afternoon after state lawmakers chose her earlier in the day to fill the nation's only statewide elected office from November that was undecided.
The 93-21 vote came during a historic joint session of the state Senate and House, with more than 50 lawmakers -- nearly all Republican -- writing "protest" on their ballots or indicating they could not determine a winner.
The General Assembly had not selected a winner for statewide office since North Carolina law was changed in 1835 to allow citizens to directly elect a governor.
The outcome was expected: a 10-member legislative panel recommended Atkinson and Democrats hold a 14-seat advantage among the General Assembly's 170 members. Atkinson waved from the House gallery to the crowd and hugged her husband and nephew after winning. She was immediately sworn into office in a nearby room.
"I hope to cram four years into three years and a half," Atkinson said during the ceremony.
Her Republican opponent Bill Fletcher congratulated her after the vote and wished her well.
"Certainly, we wish the outcome would have been different," Fletcher told reporters.
Atkinson won 8,535 more votes out of more than 3.3 million ballots cast in the Nov. 2 election. The State Board of Elections certified her as the winner in December, before the state Supreme Court blocked Atkinson from taking office so Fletcher could challenge the election in court.
Fletcher argued in court that at least 11,000 ballots cast outside of voters' home precincts were unlawful. The state Supreme Court agreed in February that the ballots were cast illegally, but the Legislature later passed a law that essentially overturned the opinion.
The General Assembly's decision cannot be appealed in state court, and Fletcher said he does not plan to pursue the matter in federal court. He said Tuesday the courts should still determine whether some provisional ballots were cast in violation of the state constitution.
"The fundamental issue hasn't been resolved," Fletcher said.
He also said lawmakers should have not become involved in the outcome of the race. His lawsuit asking a state court to determine whether lawmakers should have intervened is still pending.
The state constitution directs that contested statewide races be finalized "by joint ballot of both houses of the General Assembly in the manner prescribed by law."
But the law that governed the General Assembly's role in elections was inadvertently deleted from state statute in 1971. The law approved this year that stripped the courts of authority in the election also established the process that led to Tuesday's joint session.
"We are properly here," said Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, who led the committee that recommended Atkinson take office. "I think we are properly discharging the responsibility placed upon us."
Lawmakers voted by paper ballots that they marked and then signed. Many GOP members, including Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger, declined to vote, arguing that Democrats had warped the elections process by changing the rules after the November election.
"I think it's not the way that we ought to be handling this at this point," Berger said during the joint session.