Raleigh, N.C. — Supreme Court Associate Justice Cheri Beasley won her re-election campaign against Forsyth County lawyer Mike Robinson despite vote tabulation errors discovered in several counties throughout the state.
Beasley won by more than 5,000 votes in a race where more than 2.4 million votes were cast. Recount results, which the State Board of Elections certified during a teleconference meeting Tuesday, showed Robinson picked up a net of 17 votes across the state.
Robinson has told State Board of Elections officials that he has conceded and will not seek a further recount.
While the overall vote swing was not enough to make a meaningful dent in the election total, changes in Davidson, Lenoir and Wilson counties, all of which use touch-screen voting equipment, involved eye-catching totals of several hundred votes each.
In Davidson County, Beasley picked up 520 votes and Robinson gained 884 votes since the time county elections officials originally canvassed votes. The problem, elections officials there say, was a faulty media card used to store and transfer votes from a touch-screen machine.
"It did not affect any of the outcomes of local races at all," said Donna Zappala, who handles information technology issues for the Davidson County Board of Elections. The county was able to recover the votes from a backup system, she said.
The machine in question was one stationed in the county board of elections' office for early voting. The faulty media cards are being saved for inspection by state elections officials.
In Wilson County, Elections Director Rena Morris said elections officials failed to upload the votes cast on three machines in two different precincts properly. Again, the additional votes – 221 for Beasley and 129 for Robinson – did not change the overall outcome of either the court race or any local election, Morris said.
"It was human error," Morris said of the missing votes.
In Lenoir County, State Elections Director Kim Strach said elections officials uploaded the same file twice, leading to double counting. In that case, Beasley lost 212 votes and Robinson lost 440 votes.
Heading back to paper ballots
Members of the State Board of Elections said Tuesday that they were satisfied that internal audits and other safeguards had done their jobs and caught the problems.
Of North Carolina's 100 counties, 60 use the touch-screen systems like the ones used in Davidson, Lenoir and Wilson counties. Although the tabulation problems reported during the recount were unusual and involved human error in at least two of three cases, this is not the first time this election cycle there have been problems with the system.
During early voting and on Election Day itself, voters in several counties that use touch-screen machines reported problems voting. In particular, they said when they touched their choice, the machine highlighted another name. These types of issues have popped up with touch-screen machines over the past decade and are typically chalked up to calibration errors.
"What I'm going to point out to you is when those votes were finally cast, their choices were what the voters wanted them to be," said Charlie Collicutt, director of the Guilford County Board of Elections, one of the largest counties in the state to currently use touch-screen machines.
New state voting laws passed during the 2013-14 session require counties to phase out their touch-screen machines by the 2018 election. At that point, all counties will return to a system similar to Wake County's, in which voters mark paper ballots that are then counted by machine readers.
"The reason the 2018 date was picked was we were trying to allow the counties to get what was thought to be the useful life out of the machines they have," said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who chaired the House Elections Committee. He pointed out that affected counties will have to buy new machines, which can be an expensive proposition they need time to prepare for.
Lewis said there are currently no plans to speed the transition back to paper ballots for all counties.
Collicutt said Guilford County planned to stay with the touch-screen machines through the 2016 election. He pointed out that, during his county's recount, only one vote changed, and it was cast on a paper ballot.
"The voter had marked it lightly, and the first time it ran through our machine, it didn't pick it up," Collicutt said.
The majority of the counties throughout the state had some small change in the tabulation of the votes during the Supreme Court race recount, although most of them were modest moves of between one and 15 votes. Changes came from counties that use all paper ballots as well as those that use touch screens.
Noting that the tabulation software that adds up the votes is essentially the same in the touch-screen and paper-ballot systems, Collicutt said, "There are just different sets of problems with the different technologies."