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Durham County investigating loss of ballots in county commissioner primary



As many Duke students struggle with calculus this semester, they may take comfort in the fact that they are not the only ones with numerical issues—an investigation indicates that Durham County may have mishandled and miscounted provisional ballots during the March primary. 

Investigators referred their findings about the errors—discovered after the election's results were certified—to the Durham County District Attorney's office. Roger Echols, the county's district attorney, will determine whether to pursue a criminal prosecution in the case. The errors affected 1,039 ballots, the State Board of Elections determined, and included errors in the reported totals and "manual changes" to ballot records. 

In May, the State Board ordered 892 ballots to be recast. Several losing candidates in the Democratic primary for Durham County Commission complained that the errors could potentially have impacted the outcome of the election. Because there were only Democrats running for the position, the primary, in effect, decided the winners of the election. Th margin of victory in the race was 1,161 votes. 

Michael Page, chairman of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, who lost his bid for reelection, said that the issues with the vote totals are not just unfair to those running but also to the voters. 

“With the miscounting and the mishandling of the ballots there’s too many things that happened," Page said. "Voters deserve a much more accurate picture of what really transpired and we’re really not getting that... If you have any ballot that has been tampered with, the integrity of the election is destroyed, and I have no faith in the election. In my opinion it was unethical." 

Page said he believes re-doing the election would be the optimal solution.

“I hope the [District Attorney] is sensitive to what has happened in this election to the candidates as well as to the voters," Page said. "The right thing for this election is to vote this out and do this all over again. I’ve already filed a complaint, and it is obvious that the State Board of Elections has no interest in understanding what has taken place."

In addition to facing a slew of complaints filed by candidates, Durham County officials could also be confronted with a series of criminal charges if Echols makes that determination. These could include making fraudulent entry on elections books and certifying, delivering or transmitting false returns, both of which are Class I felonies.

“I’m not a sore loser, but I really do believe in a fair fight, and it’s disappointing. We’re not saying, ‘this is not acceptable, this should not have happened, and we demand a new election,'" Page said. "It’s just not right, and nobody’s saying anything."

While state election officials have maintained the loss of the ballots would not have impacted the election, Michael Munger, a professor of political science, said there still are detrimental effects from this miscounting. 

“There was a small number of votes, but it’s a pretty small election, and if it changes the election, it does two things," Munger said. "One, the wrong person is serving. The other thing that it does is it reduces our confidence in the legitimacy of the system."

Munger also emphasized the importance of maintaining the integrity of elections.

“We can’t constantly be checking, and the inattention of public officials to that part of the process is inexcusable," Munger said. 

The investigation is ongoing and no timetable has been given for when it will conclude.


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