LUMBERTON — Enough ballots in a Pembroke Council race were questioned after two days of hearings before the Robeson County Board of Elections to justify requesting the state Board of Elections to decide how the outcome of the election should be determined.
“We have identified between nine and less than a dozen votes that could possibly have been improperly cast,” said Steve Stone, the chairman of the Elections Board. “The state will have to look at the improper ballots and determine if they could have had an impact on the outcome of the race.”
The local Board of Elections heard protests Thursday and Friday from incumbent Councilman Allen Dial and and challenger Theresa Locklear, the two candidates whom after a Nov. 16 recount tied with 299 votes each. Dial was declared the winner when he drew a high card from a deck.
Stone said all of the protests centered around one-stop early voting and the opportunity for voters to register and vote on the same day during the early voting period.
According to Stone, the results of the protests could possibly change the outcome of results for the top three candidates in the six-candidate field for two seats. The top vote getter was newcomer Channing Jones, with Dial and Locklear tied with the second highest number of votes.
Stone said that there was no evidence submitted during the protest hearings that would change the outcome of the race to fill the remaining two years of the unexpired term of the late Councilman Robert Williamson. After last Saturday’s recount, newcomer Mitchell Lowry finished four votes ahead of former Pembroke Councilman Larry McNeill, 265 to 261 votes.
“Unless the state board would find something different, that race is over,” Stone said. “There was no evidence submitted during the hearings that would change the results of that race … . McNeill provided testimony during the hearings but had filed no protests himself.”
According to Stone, his board’s “finding of facts” from the hearings will be sent to the state board early in the week, probably on Tuesday.
“We are recommending to the state board that it consider those improper voters we have identified and have a ‘reconstruction election’ using a process the state already has in place,” he said.
In a reconstruction, the state board would review all of the evidence from the local hearings in an effort to determine if all of one-stop votes were evaluated properly. The state could add votes to the local board’s count or deduct from the board’s count, Stone said.
“The state could call a re-election of just those who voted in the election,” Stone said. “The state board could let the results stand. The state board has a lot of discretion, but it usually does the right thing.”
Stone said that a 2009 amendment to state voting laws established the use of a reconstructed election to consider voting irregularities without another election having to be held.
“A reconstruction allows elections to be accurate without putting the cost burden of having another election on the taxpayers,” he said. “It is cost and time saving, and you still get the same results.”
Stone said he expects it will be weeks before the state evaluates all of the evidence and determines what action should be taken.
Five voters who the board sustained challenges to their residencies during challenging hearings met the 10-day deadline Friday to request a Robeson County Superior Court judge to reinstate their votes in the Nov. 5 elections. Stone said a hearing before the judge will be held probably sometime next week.
Locklear said Friday afternoon that she is not going to challenge any of the results reached by the local three-member board . She had until 5 p.m. Friday to appeal any protest hearing results with the Robeson County Superior Court.
If the court receives any appeals, a judge will have to determine if the state Board of Elections is correct in its determination of the challenged voter’s residency. The court’s opinion is then forwarded to the state Board of Elections for its consideration.
Dial could not be reached late Friday for comment.