RALEIGH — Tens of thousands of uncounted provisional ballots could decide North Carolina’s governor’s race, some which wouldn’t have been counted if the courts had upheld a Republican-backed law that limited voting access.
With nearly 4.7 million ballots cast, GOP Gov. Pat McCrory trailed Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper by about 5,000 votes — even though Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and Donald Trump secured victories by comfortable margins. McCrory was dogged throughout the campaign by his support for a law limiting LGBT rights — a prime example, according to Democrats, of the state’s rightward shift under his watch.
Cooper had declared victory, though the race remained too close to call Wednesday. County boards are supposed to decide in the next several days which mailed absentee ballots and provisional votes cast during early voting or on Election Day should be added to the race totals. The trailing candidate could then ask for a recount.
“Claiming an outcome before the process has concluded is irresponsible and disrespectful to the voters of North Carolina whose voices have yet to be heard,” McCrory consultant Chris LaCivita said in a release. Republicans were sending volunteers and lawyers out across the state to help McCrory’s cause, state Chairman Robin Hayes said.
County election boards told the State Board of Elections by late Wednesday there were 26,600 provisional ballots — those that weren’t immediately counted at voting locations for various reasons. For example, precinct officials may have had no record of a person’s registration or a different address from what the voter gave.
The number of provisionals was expected to increase. There were more than 33,000 provisional ballots cast in the November 2012 election. County election boards — three people, of which two are registered Republicans — will evaluate and decide by the end of next week which provisional ballots should be counted by determining voter eligibility. Mail-in, military and overseas ballots also will continue to trickle in over the next week.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last July struck down several parts of a 2013 ballot access law approved by the Republican-led General Assembly and signed by McCrory that had scaled back the number of early in-person voting days and eliminated same-day registration during the early voting period.
The ruling also voided a section that rejected the counting of provisional ballots cast on Election Day when a person failed to vote in their home precinct. Now, registrants who visited the wrong precinct in their county will have most or some of their ballot choices count. Four years ago, about 6,700 out-of-precinct ballots were counted statewide with about 45 percent of them cast by Democrats, according to election advocacy group Democracy North Carolina. The rest were essentially divided by Republicans and unaffiliated voters.
Attorney Marshall Hurley, a veteran of previous contested elections, said the results of out-of-precinct ballots that get counted generally mirror the results of the area where they are voting: “A blue county is likely to stay a blue county, and vice versa.” A trial court judge in April found that registered voters who were black disproportionately use out-of-precinct voting. Black voters in North Carolina have historically favored Democratic candidates in state races, including those for governor.
Counties are supposed to finalize their results Nov. 18, after which the trailing candidate in the race can request a statewide recount. On Nov. 29, the state board meets to officially declare victors. Historically, recounts in North Carolina rarely have changed the outcome of a race.
Digging into which ballots are counted and excluded under legal rules has caused elections to linger longer if challenged in court, Hurley said. When Hurley represented now-Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler in his contested November 2004 election, Troxler didn’t take office until that February.
“The process can go in different directions depending on what is found during the recount and the canvasses,” Hurley said. “You don’t know what you’re getting into.”