Splitting across party lines on a 3-2 vote, the Forsyth County Board of Elections on Thursday rejected an appeal by the Cheri Beasley campaign to re-examine 87 ballots rejected locally in the close statewide contest for chief justice of the state supreme court.
The election board's two Republican members were joined by Democrat Susan Campbell, the board chair, in voting to dismiss the protest of the local election results filed by Beasley, the incumbent Democratic chief justice.
With all 100 North Carolina counties having made their election results official, Beasley trails her GOP challenger, Paul Newby, by only 407 votes. Newby is currently an associate justice on the seven-member court.
The Beasley campaign has launched election protests across the state, submitting documents that claim that in 90 counties there were ballots that were not properly counted.
More than 2,000 ballots have been targeted by the Beasley campaign as ones that possibly should have been counted by county elections boards.
A recount in the contest also has been ordered because of Newby's narrow margin. And the state elections board can take up any appeals that the Beasley campaign might make from counties that dismiss her election protest.
When the vote came on the local elections board Thursday night, Campbell sided with Republican members Stuart Russell and John Loughridge in voting to dismiss the Beasley protest.
That gave the dismissal three votes, with the other two elections board Democrats, Robert Durrah and Catherine Jourdan, voting against the motion to dismiss. The two Democrats said they felt Beasley's case was at least strong enough to go forward for a hearing.
Campbell was clearly bothered by the implication she saw in the protest that the elections board and staff didn't do a proper count.
"We have done this work," Campbell said, adding that the protests "say we didn't do it right."
"I guess that is what they are saying, that we didn't do a good job when we previously did it, or the staff made a mistake when they found out they were registered in another county," Campbell said. "How else can we accept these ballots that have been rejected?"
Russell, who made the motion to dismiss the protest, said it wasn't timely anyway. According to law, he said, a protest that alleges a problem in the counting of votes has to be filed before the official canvass, which took place last Friday. The Beasley protest was filed on Tuesday.
There are provisions that allowed the deadline to be extended to 5 p.m. Tuesday, which the Bealey protest met. But Russell argued that the protest was filled with too much speculation anyhow to amount to evidence of irregularities.
Democratic elections board member Robert Durrah, citing the possibility of human error, argued the most strongly for Beasley's case to at least go forward locally to a formal hearing.
"As we were going through the ballot envelopes, there were times when envelopes were torn, ballots were torn," Durrah said. "There were times when we discovered a signature was not in the right place, or didn't have one. I think ... there is a possibility that we did not get them all right. That is the possibility, where I think counting each and every vote is so important."
Jourdan at times appeared to argue in favor of dismissal, but appeared swayed in the end by the guide to election procedures that the state publishes. In it, she said, the "probable cause" for moving a protest hearing forward was described as "a relatively low bar."
"It does not require a showing that the protest be correct ... or more likely true than false," she said. County attorney Lonnie Albright made a similar point, when he said that the board could consider whether the election outcome would be different if the Beasley allegations turned out to be true.
Most of the Forsyth ballots that the Beasley protest says were incorrectly handled were provisional ballots, which are cast by voters when there is doubt as to whether they have the right to vote.
In 27 cases, the protest alleges, ballots were rejected from voters who had been removed from the voting rolls but who were still county residents. Another 25 rejected ballots were cast by voters who told Democratic Party volunteers that they had attempted to register to vote. Another 17 absentee ballots were rejected after earlier being accepted, the protest alleges.
Campbell said she remembered cases where ballots were in the "accepted" pile that, on closer examination, had a defect that caused them to be rejected.
Meanwhile, another protest petition, alleging the ballots of dead voters should not have been counted, was dismissed on Thursday for having missed the 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline.
Adam Draper, who handled that filing for his wife, Stefanie Pettit Draper, said that she discovered that 19 Forsyth County voters, at a minimum, had died before Nov. 3 but after casting absentee ballots.
Election board members expressed regret that the votes of dead voters were counted, but said the protest was too late to affect the results.
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