Election Day seems so long ago. A lot has happened in the more than two weeks since we thought it would all be over.
Since then, the narrow margin in the contest for governor has kept teams of lawyers busy, none of whom can say when the election results will be official.
Protested votes, provisional ballots and voters who said they registered at the Division of Motor Vehicles but didn’t show up on the rolls have combined to delay the outcome. Last week Gov. Pat McCrory demanded a recount of the 7,700 or so votes that separates him from Attorney General Roy Cooper, but on Saturday said he would withdraw that request if disputed votes are recounted in Durham.
You have questions. Here are the answers.
How does a recount work?
In the gubernatorial race, a recount can be demanded when the difference between the top two vote-getters is less than 10,000 votes.
Overseen by the State Board of Elections, county boards embark on a process spelled out in the state board’s rules.
Most North Carolina counties use optical scan machines. In a recount, paper ballots are fed back into the machines just like on election night, producing a new paper tape showing results. Ballots that had been rejected by the machines are recounted by hand. Bipartisan teams of four conduct this process.
If that recount produces a change in the winner, then the former frontrunner can demand a second recount by hand.
Hand counts begin with a count of 10 percent of the precincts in the jurisdiction, beginning with precincts in which a different total was produced by the first machine count. The trailing candidate at that point can demand a hand count of all the precincts.
How much would a recount cost?
In 2012, Linda Coleman opted not to demand a recount in her race against Dan Forest for lieutenant governor, noting it would cost at least $1.5 million, according to an Associated Press report at the time.
Why are votes still being counted?
Although most of the counties have formally certified their results, known as canvassing, mail-in and provisional ballots are still being tallied in the remaining counties. Provisional ballots are given to voters who don’t show up on their precinct’s rolls, and are verified later.
There were 60,200 provisional ballots cast, but historically fewer than half of them turn out to be valid. This remains the biggest unknown factor in the governor race — making it mathematically possible to change the outcome of the election.
However, provisional ballots tend to come from Democrats, who at last count amounted to 36 percent of the provisionals this election, compared to 32 percent Republican and 30 percent unaffiliated. So they would likely favor Cooper.
As of the weekend, all but 19 of the state’s 100 counties had finished their canvasses. The large counties of Wake, Durham, Mecklenburg, Buncombe, Forsyth and Guilford counties had not reported in yet.
What is being contested?
McCrory and Republican officials have filed protests in nearly half the counties alleging votes were cast by people who were dead or were ineligible felons, that some voted in this state and another, and that ballots were improperly witnessed or filled out by others. Computer problems in Durham County delayed the counting of some 90,000 votes, which McCrory still wants recounted.
State law differentiates between “protests” and “challenges.” A challenge happens when a person claims that someone was not eligible to cast a ballot. A protest contends there were broad problems with the administration of an election.
Cooper and Democratic Party attorneys have been arguing that the GOP protests were actually challenges, and the deadline to challenge has passed. Republicans disagreed and said the state board had a responsibility to investigate. The first series of county boards that have examined the protests have rejected most of the claims, and have not found widespread fraud.
Can they vote or not?
Those serving active prison sentences for felony convictions or on parole or probation for those felonies cannot vote. Once their sentences are fulfilled, they can vote again. Many of the supposed felons in the GOP complaints were actually on probation only for misdemeanors or were citizens mixed up with felons having the same name.
If someone mails in a ballot and then dies before Election Day, their vote does not count.
If someone eligible to vote in North Carolina casts a ballot in this state and then votes a second time in another state, the first vote would be valid and legal. The second vote would be illegal and subject to rejection, but it wouldn’t affect the legality of the first vote.
How long could this take?
Until sometime in December. The state board can’t begin canvassing the county votes until the last county reports. Wake County is scheduled to make its final canvass on Nov. 30.
If for some reason this isn’t resolved by the end of the year, it’s unclear who the governor will be come January.
The law says a candidate can’t take office until the state elections board has certified the results.
Does that mean McCrory would remain in office until it’s resolved? Would it be Lt. Gov. Dan Forest?
The state constitution says the lieutenant governor-elect “shall become Governor upon the failure of the Governor-elect to qualify.” That would be the case if the State Board of Elections fails to issue a certificate of election to McCrory or to Democrat Roy Cooper.
But Bob Joyce of the UNC School of Government says a general principle of election law is that the current office holder – in this case McCrory – would hold over until the situation is resolved.
And then what?
If a losing Council of State candidate still isn’t ready to surrender, an appeal can be made to the General Assembly to contest the election. It must be on the grounds that the loser’s opponent is ineligible or unqualified, or that there was an error in the conduct or counting of votes.
That triggers a detailed procedure beginning with depositions and other inquiries leading up to a special committee making a recommendation to the full legislature. That has only happened in recent memory in the 2004 election for superintendent of public instruction won by June Atkinson. It took nine months to resolve.
Is this just about the governor contest?
No. The governor and state auditor contests are within the 10,000-vote range to call for recounts. Losing candidates for attorney general and insurance commissioner are not within the range but have not conceded.
Other races in the balance include state House and Senate races in Wake County, between Republican Rep. Marilyn Avila and Democratic challenger Joe John and between Republican Sen. Tamara Barringer and Democratic challenger Susan Evans.
Jim Morrill of the Charlotte Observer contributed.