Atkinson backed in vote dispute

By: - August 10, 2005 5:14 am

Raleigh News & Observer
A legislative panel’s decision means she is likely to be declared state schools chief


North Carolina’s new public school superintendent is all but sure to be Democrat June Atkinson, who won the backing Tuesday of a divided legislative committee.

The full General Assembly, which has 14 more Democrats than Republicans, is expected soon to declare Atkinson the winner of fall’s disputed statewide election for superintendent of public instruction — the nation’s last undecided statewide race from the 2004 elections.

Republican candidate Bill Fletcher of Cary, a Wake County school board member and marketing consultant, said that vote probably will decide the race for good in Atkinson’s favor.

"I expect it to be down party lines," Fletcher said after the committee’s vote. "But if they’re going to violate the state constitution, we’re going to make them do it in public, on the record."

Atkinson, a former administrator in the state Department of Public Instruction who lives in Raleigh, thanked the special committee and urged the full legislature to act soon.

"I hope that the General Assembly will affirm the will of the people by voting for the recommendation of the committee," she told news reporters. "This has been a 10-month ordeal. I think the people of North Carolina will be as happy as I am that the election has come to an end."

Atkinson led Fletcher by 8,535 votes out of more than 3.3 million cast in the November election. But Fletcher has pushed to exclude an estimated 11,000 or more provisional ballots that voters cast in the wrong precincts.

After Fletcher sued, the Republican-led state Supreme Court said those votes were illegal. The Democrat-dominated legislature said they count.

Fletcher says the state should follow the exact letter of the law. Atkinson says every vote should count, including those cast out of the voters’ home precincts. She asked the legislature to settle the contest under an obscure provision of the state constitution not used for the past 160 years.

The Joint Select Committee on Council of State Contested Elections, which had a hearing on the case last month, began its meeting Tuesday by reviewing a proposed report justifying its decision. The committee majority wound up adopting the report with its vote in Atkinson’s favor.

A split vote

The committee, six Democrats and four Republicans, voted by voice along party lines after more than two hours of pointed but polite discussion. The committee majority said no recount or re-election is necessary.

"I don’t think it’s a close case at all," said Rep. Joe Hackney, a Democrat from Orange County. "We had an election. There was no fraud. There was no confusion about the votes. Everybody acted in good faith. There was no dispute about the outcome. I think it’s pretty simple: She got the most votes."

Republicans on the committee said that assumes that the 11,000 or more disputed votes were valid, which remains in question.

"I think the arguments on both sides are very good," said Sen. Austin Allran, a Hickory Republican. "Since the court agreed with [Fletcher’s] contention, it’s not so simple anymore."

Sen. R.C. Soles, a Tabor City Democrat, said the voters at issue should have their choices count.

"There’s no evidence that they would have voted any differently if they had voted in the place they were supposed to vote," Soles said.

The committee’s Republicans said the legislature should stay out of it. They warned against giving the public the impression that the most political branch of government is deciding the election on a partisan basis.

Instead, they favored deferring to a court determination or conducting a new statewide election.

"Anything other than a new election will leave the public crying foul," said Rep. Bonner Stiller, an Oak Island Republican. "If we choose a person, I’m afraid that the public would say that’s a political decision, pure and simple."

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Jim Black said the joint vote could come this week.

Staff writer Matthew Eisley can be reached at 829-4538 or [email protected].

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066