- Associated Press - Thursday, May 5, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina election officials investigating inconsistencies with provisional ballots in Durham County during the March 15 primary may decide to remove more than 1,000 of the ballots from the vote count, but that doing so will not affect the outcome of any races.

Board investigators have been collecting evidence and interviewing people to determine how several things appeared to have gone wrong at the Durham County elections office involving provisional ballots, State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach said Thursday. Some of those ballots may be missing, she said.

Election officials are unable to determine which of Durham’s 1,039 approved provisional ballots should count, Strach said. When the state board meets later this month to finalize the results statewide, she’ll recommend that those ballots be left out of the totals.

“This is not supposed to happen and we have processes in place that should have assured voters that this should have never happened,” Strach said. “These provisional voters’ ballots should have counted.”

More than 2.3 million people cast ballots in primary races. The elimination of these ballots should not affect the outcome of any contest, she said, whether local or statewide. “We have no evidence that anyone was trying to change results to change the outcome of any election,” Strach added.

An in-person voter casts a provisional ballot in a number of circumstances, such as when an elections worker doesn’t have a record of the person’s registration or the voter failed to provide photo identification or report a move. The voter fills out a ballot and other information. Local election officials determine later whether the person was qualified to vote. Those who are have their ballots fully and partially counted and added to the election night totals.

Durham County Elections Director Michael Perry emailed a state board attorney April 8 expressing “some serious concerns about our reported provisional ballots counts.”

Perry wrote that the county board was about 200 paper ballots short of the number of provisional ballots cast. Perry said a temporary staff worker told him a permanent staff member ordered her to “run some ballots a second time” through a voter tabulation machine “to get the ballot count number to match.” Perry wrote there were reports of a “tote” of unopened and uncounted ballots. Strach said they have not been located.

The permanent staff member supervising the counting resigned March 29, Perry wrote. A copy of his resignation letter - his signature blacked out - was provided by the State Board of Elections.

It is a low-grade felony for an election worker to knowingly falsify election returns. The state board seized the provisional ballots, applications and associated documents based on an April 22 subpoena. Board officials have communicated with the Durham County district attorney’s office, Strach said.

“We want voters to have confidence in elections in Durham County and we want to assure the public that there will be accountability in Durham,” Strach said.

Bill Brian, chairman of the three-member Durham County Board of Elections, confirmed the investigation based on a “discrepancy relating to the provisional ballots.” The board has been cooperating fully and “will be studying ways to insure that no such event ever can happen again,” he wrote in an email.

Documents provided by the state board show county board officials made determinations on whether 1,918 provisional ballots should count but had forms associated with 1,841 such ballots.

Determining which of the 1,039 ballots should count can’t be determined in part because all of the provisional ballots cast were mixed up, the state board said. And two different election computer systems came up with different tallies on how the 1,039 were allocated among the four partisan ballot choices: Democrat, Republican, Libertarian and unaffiliated.

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