Ballot dispute goes to panel
Raleigh News & Observer
Lawmakers hear candidates’ cases
By TODD SILBERMAN, Staff Writer
More than eight months after voters cast ballots for state school superintendent, the legislature waded into the contest Thursday, with the opening round of hearings aimed at finally naming a winner.
The two candidates appealed to a special committee appointed to sort out what has become the nation’s last undecided statewide race from November elections.
Democrat June Atkinson on Thursday reiterated her claim that as recipient of the most votes, she is the legitimate winner. Republican Bill Fletcher repeated his argument that there can be no clear winner until state election officials throw out what he contends are at least 11,300 illegal ballots and tally the votes again.
The messy contest already has led to a state Supreme Court decision in Fletcher’s favor and to legislation in the General Assembly friendly to Atkinson.
The hearing Thursday offered no simple answers. The 10-member committee, which will ultimately make a recommendation for a joint vote by the Democratic-led House and Senate, ended its session without a recommendation in sight or a firm date to reconvene.
From the start, Fletcher and his attorneys told the committee that it lacked the accurate vote count necessary to reach a decision. They said the contest should be returned to the State Board of Elections and the courts.
"With a new canvass of the legal votes," Fletcher said, "this race will be over, and it will have been decided properly, by the people of North Carolina."
The dispute revolves around more than 11,000 "provisional" ballots cast by voters in precincts other than the ones where they were registered. Fletcher won a ruling in February from the Republican-majority Supreme Court that said the ballots were illegal under state law.
But Atkinson and her attorneys said there should be no question about the legality of the 3.3 million total ballots in the race.
"I received 8,535 more votes than Fletcher," Atkinson told the committee. "The provisional ballots cast on Election Day were cast by qualified voters in good conscience and at the direction of election officials."
Atkinson’s attorney, John Wallace, said that legislation from 2003, reaffirmed earlier this year, made clear that so called "out-of-precinct" provisional ballots should count.
The 2003 bill was adopted to bring the state’s voting laws into compliance with changes in federal law intended to improve voter access. The bill enacted in February — in response to the Supreme Court decision — clarified the legislature’s intent that out-of-precinct ballots should count and that they should also have counted in the 2004 elections.
"There is no doubt about the outcome of the election," Wallace said. "Atkinson clearly received the higher number of votes."
Fear of unfair ruling
Fletcher’s attorney, Michael Crowell, told the committee that the issue is complicated by questions of legislative intent, legal complexities and a highly partisan setting.
Crowell said he doubted that Fletcher will get a fair ruling from the Democratic-led legislature. The panel hearing the dispute includes six Democrats and four Republicans; 92 of the 170 members of the legislature are Democrats.
"Everyone expects a vote along party lines. They think this hearing is a mere formality," Crowell said, warning that a simple partisan vote in Atkinson’s favor could tarnish the legislature’s reputation.
"The superintendent of public instruction is an important office," Crowell said, "but not so important that you should allow this dispute to lessen the reputation of the General Assembly."
Instead, he urged the committee to heed the Supreme Court opinion and recommend an additional vote canvass that would exclude the questioned out-of-precinct provisional ballots.
Doing otherwise would be in defiance of the law, Crowell said.
"Let the State Board of Elections and the state courts decide which votes are lawful," he said. "You may not like the decision of the courts, but that’s the way it works."
Staff writer Todd Silberman can be reached at 829-4531 or [email protected].
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