SBI investigates mishandling of 1,000 provisional ballots in Durham

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s top criminal investigations agency is looking into whether there was wrongdoing in last spring’s primary election in Durham County, the likely ground zero in the ongoing fight over last week’s still-in-doubt race for governor.

A State Bureau of Investigation spokesman and Durham’s district attorney confirmed Monday that investigators have been on the case for two weeks.

The bureau is investigating whether crimes were committed in the mishandling of more than 1,000 provisional ballots during the March primary elections. Some may have been counted twice and election officials presented the vote count as true when it was wrong, according to an interim report presented to the state elections board in May. The miscount didn’t affect the primary’s outcome.

The state board’s completed investigation was turned over to Durham District Attorney Roger Echols, who brought in state investigators Oct. 31, bureau spokesman Shannon O’Toole said.

Problems identified during the March primary are different from the technical glitches observed by bipartisan election observers that led to the late reporting of 94,000 votes on election night, Durham County elections board chairman William Brian Jr. said. Gov. Pat McCrory’s re-election campaign last weekend claimed wrongful or illegal conduct by the Republican-majority elections board in the heavily Democratic county.

“There’s no connection between the investigation that the SBI has engaged in and this last election,” said Brian, a registered Republican.

A lawyer for the state Republican Party filed a formal protest accusing the county elections board of “malfeasance” in counting the ballots. Durham County’s elections board scheduled a meeting Wednesday to hear details of the protest filed by GOP lawyer Tom Stark, who lives in Durham County.

McCrory led in the gubernatorial contest for much of election night until the previously unreported early votes from Durham County flooded into the statewide tally shortly before midnight. That turned the advantage to Democrat and Attorney General Roy Cooper, who now leads in the race by about 5,000 votes.

“Everybody involved in an election has an agenda,” Brian said in a telephone interview. “The Board of Elections only has one agenda, and that is to make sure that everyone in Durham County who is eligible to vote has the opportunity to vote in accordance with the law and that those votes are accurately counted.”

The Durham elections board this weekend released a blow-by-blow description of what happened last week, emphasizing that every step in counting the early votes was watched by Republican members of the county board and later a state elections official. The county elections board followed all state and federal laws in its handling of an equipment problem discovered after polls closed Nov. 8, the board said in a statement late Sunday.

The malfunction forced a time-consuming manual process before the results of the early voting could be reported to the state elections board, county officials said.

McCrory’s campaign team wants Durham County to manually recount each of the original paper ballots before reporting official results this week. Under state law, counties will complete a canvass of all their votes by Friday.

The state elections board is scheduled to make the election results official late this month. Candidates could then appeal decisions they oppose to state courts. The Republican-dominated Legislature could ultimately determine the outcome if left unresolved by elections boards and judges.

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