- Associated Press - Saturday, December 23, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - As cleanup continues from the most recent North Carolina elections held without a regulatory board to settle disputes, both local and state officials are wondering if the court case that vacated the board will be settled before the next elections in May.

County boards and judges - not the state elections board - are still handling appeals from municipal elections in November. They include a mayor’s race that was decided by three votes and a one-vote race where ineligible voters cast ballots.

North Carolina hasn’t had a statewide elections board since June because Gov. Roy Cooper is challenging a law that would change the board’s composition to be divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Cooper, a Democrat, has gone to court against the GOP-controlled legislature to keep the system that gives the governor’s party a majority of the board’s members. The litigation is now before the state Supreme Court.

So the staff members of an empty board have forwarded the cases to Superior Court judges in Wake County, who have “demonstrated a desire to make a difficult situation work,” said Josh Lawson, attorney for the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement. “And we’re seeing that play out in multiple scenarios in the absence of our board.”

For example, the winners of races in Boone went to court in mid-December for an order allowing them to take their seats because a protester argued that the winners should have to wait until the elections board had members. The whole issue could have been avoided if the board had been available to adopt a one-stop voting plan for Watauga County because that’s what triggered the dispute, Lawson said.

On Wednesday, state board staff sought a judicial review of the mayoral race in Sharpsburg, a town with residents in three counties, and the town council race in Winterville.

The Wilson County precinct received just seven ballots for Sharpsburg voters; the precinct has 349 voters eligible to cast ballots for Sharpsburg mayor, said Rena’ Morris, the county elections director. The precinct didn’t have Sharpsburg ballots for about two hours, she said.

Mayoral candidate Robert Williams, who lost by three votes, said in his complaint that several potential voters were turned away.

The shortage occurred because of an inaccurate report that Morris ran before the election. That report showed just two voters at the Wilson County precinct who were eligible for a Sharpsburg ballot, she said. When she ran the same report on Election Day, she got 349.

“I can promise you that from now on, it’s going to be a little different,” Morris said. “I’ll be looking for something like that. Nobody wants to have to redo an election.”

Typically, the protest over the ballot shortage would have been filed Election Day with the state board, which likely would have extended voting hours at that one precinct, Lawson said. Neither Lawson nor Morris is convinced that extended hours would have prevented a later protest, however.

The Pitt County Board of Elections recommended a new election for Winterville town council after it discovered that 10 people who don’t live in the town limits were allowed to vote. The incumbent, who lost that race by one vote, has conceded. But Lawson said the county board can’t certify results that it knows are incorrect. Meanwhile, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice has filed a petition asking that the apparent winner in the race be awarded his seat on the council due to an earlier Pitt County board ruling.

Other issues facing the member-less board include ethics complaints and new rules, Lawson said. Candidates start filing in February for all 170 seats in the legislature and North Carolina’s 13 U.S. House seats. The potential for problems grows when primaries are held May 8.

Lawson declined to say that there’s a date certain where North Carolina voters will experience elections differently if there’s no election board. “We have maintained that the State Board of Elections is a necessary part of the democratic process,” he said.

As for Morris, she’s holding her breath. “I just hope we have some members” by May, she said.

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Follow Martha Waggoner at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc

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