A Close Call for Chief Justice in North Carolina

Our closest election ever gives us our closest look ever at how votes are counted – or not counted.

And it gives us a chance to salute the unsung heroes who do the counting.

There never has been a statewide election in North Carolina as close as the race for Chief Justice between Democratic incumbent Cheri Beasley and Republican Paul Newby, an associate justice on the Court.

As of last Friday, Newby led Beasley by 401 votes out of 5,391,404. That’s a margin of 0.0074%

That makes Attorney General Josh Stein’s 13,623-vote tight-as-a-drum reelection over Jim O’Neill (50.13%-49.87%) look like a landslide.

We won’t know the winner until the process plays out, and it runs on two tracks.

One track is a recount, not only the routine step of running ballots back through machines, but also potentially a hand-eye recount of every single one of the nearly 5.4 million ballots.

The other track is county election boards hearing protests filed by both candidates involving thousands of ballots. The counties’ decisions can be appealed to the State Board of Elections, then to Superior Court and eventually, conceivably, to the Supreme Court itself.

This could go on for a while.

The campaigns’ protests take opposite approaches. Beasley’s campaign wants votes that were rejected initially to be counted. Newby’s campaign wants votes that were counted initially to be thrown out.

The standoff reflects a long-running battle in North Carolina. Democrats maintain that Republicans deliberately suppress the votes of Blacks, college students and other Democratic-leaning groups.

Every election, Democrats mobilize a “voter-protection team” of lawyers. They track mail-in ballots that are rejected. They track provisional ballots, used when there are questions about voters’ eligibility that must be resolved before the votes can count.

Because of Covid-19, more people voted by mail this year. Because President Trump attacked mail-in votes, more Democrats than Republicans voted by mail.

Beasley’s campaign has zeroed in on several hundred mail-in ballots and provisionals that weren’t counted originally. The campaign says most questions involve errors in marking or mailing ballots that can be corrected legally.

Beasley’s supporters contend she will gain votes – enough to put her ahead – as counties review those ballots.

Her campaign also requested the hand-eye recount, a comprehensive review to find any errors that machines missed. Maybe a voter filled in one candidate’s bubble but inadvertently made a mark beside the other candidate’s bubble. The voting machine can’t read the ballot, but the human eye can. Democrats say these ballots tend to be Democrats’.

Newby’s campaign takes a different tack. It asks counties to disqualify thousands of mail-in ballots that already have been counted. The campaign says volunteers scanned absentee ballot envelopes for “irregularities,” like the lack of a voter or witness signature.

An analysis by Tyler Dukes of The News & Observer concluded that “a disproportionate number of those protests have been filed against Black voters.”

Election officials across the state now must resolve the issues. They take up the task after going through an unprecedented, prolonged and pandemic-plagued year. They’re exhausted, frustrated and under intense pressure.

All the while, they hear President Trump and Rudy Giuliani rail about election fraud. They see death threats against election officials in other states.

I’ve been through election recounts. Every time, I’ve been awed by the patience and professionalism of the people who work in our election system. They are dedicated to making sure that every legal vote is counted.

They are the backbone of free and fair elections. They’ll get this one right, however long it takes and whatever the outcome. They deserve a vote of thanks.

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