Durham Board of Elections to review election protest

Rachael Riley; rriley@heraldsun.com

DURHAM -- The Durham County Board of Elections has not seen evidence that results of the Nov. 8 general election are inaccurate, the board’s chairman said Tuesday.

At a news coanference Tuesday, Bill Brian, chairman of the Durham County BOE, said the board received a protest relating to more than 94,000 ballots that were manually entered election night.

“We have seen no evidence whatsoever that there’s any inaccuracy or any problem with any of the returns that were reported on election day,” Brian said.

The board will conduct a probable cause hearing at 8 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16 in the County Commissioners Chambers at 200 E. Main St. on a protest filed by Thomas Stark, an attorney for the state Republican Party and a Durham County resident.

“We have to act in accordance with what the evidence shows,” Brian said. “We can’t in accordance with supposition.”

Stark’s protest alleges ballots were entered by “bleary eyes” and “tired hands” and tabulated on potentially corrupted data systems.

“Neither the Durham County Board nor the citizens of the county or the state of North Carolina can have any reasonable degree of confidence in the unofficial election results produced by the process undertaken to date,” the petition states.

Election officials previously said data cards from six of the ballot machines were corrupt, but the same information was recorded on tapes, which was later manually entered.

“Our understanding is that the official record is on the paper, not the electronic cards,” Brian said.

Since election night, those cards have been locked away, he said.

Brian described it as a “difficult process,” but said multiple observers were present election night and a bipartisan team was on hand ensuring results were entered correctly.

Once the 94,000 ballots were manually entered, Brian said he, an election staff member and a representative of the state BOE “spot checked” or audited both the gubernatorial and presidential races to ensure the information was correct, before uploading it to the state’s data system.

“If anybody has any evidence to show anything else that was wrong, we’ll have a hearing on that,” Brian said.

The BOE will not take public comment at Wednesday's meeting, but will consider Stark’s complaint and evidence to determine if there is probable cause to pursue it.

The board members will act as judges -- meaning they cannot discuss the evidence or what they may or may not do, Brian said.

If they determine there’s probable cause to proceed, an evidentiary hearing will be held following the board’s canvass of election results at 11 a.m. Friday.

If the board decides to proceed with an evidentiary hearing, evidence would be taken and witnesses would be able to testify under oath, Brian said.

“I think that a number of comments about Durham County’s history have been made which are inaccurate,” he said. “Durham County does not have a history of bad elections. Durham County does not have a history of being unable to complete its elections without fair elections.”

Community activist Jackie Wagstaff said she is a concerned resident who filed multiple protests relating to allegations of missing provisional ballots during the March 15 primary election, which the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) is now reviewing.

“I’m trying to understand how this process as of Nov. 8 turned out the way it did when you had the fiasco on March 15 that never got resolved actually got resolved -- for the citizens to have confidence in this organization,” Wagstaff said.

A representative of Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign -- Republican McCrory trails Democrat Roy Cooper by slightly more than 5,000 votes statewide in a re-election race still too close to call -- raised similar questions in a statement that followed Tuesday’s news conference.

“Instead of inexplicably trying to protect their damaged reputation and prejudging the outcome, the Durham County Board of Elections should focus on ensuring votes are properly counted,” said Ricky Diaz, McCrory's campaign spokesman. “If they are right, there's no harm in a recount of the precincts in question, and if they are wrong, the recount will correct errors and resolve legitimate concerns."

Brian said what happened in March and what happened on Nov. 8 are two separate issues.

Once the discrepancy was discovered in March, he said the state took jurisdiction of the matter and allowed provisional ballots to be recast, as the investigation continued. The questioned ballots were not enough to affect the outcome of any of the March primary races.

“The state continued to do an investigation of the March primary and eventually released a report, which they have not shared with us, but which was turned over to the local district attorney,” he said, referring to Durham District Attorney Roger Echols.

He said it appears the March incident was related to a “rogue” employee who messed up and is no longer with the BOE.

“We have instituted multiple counter checks for that to make sure that that doesn’t happen again,” Brian said. “Nobody’s allowed to look at ballots by themselves. Nobody’s allowed to enter any information by themselves. We keep it very strict.”