North Carolina Governor's Race Recount: Last Gasp of a Changing South?

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North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory waves before speaking ahead of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina November 7. He is pushing a recount after an apparent loss on election day to Democrat Roy Cooper. Chris Keane/Reuters

While Republicans spar with Jill Stein and the Green Party over statewide recounts that are highly unlikely to affect the outcome of the presidential race, local officials in North Carolina are racing to complete a recount that could prove very consequential for the Tar Heel state—and down the road, the country.

The state’s Board of Elections voted along partisan lines Wednesday to order a partial recount of voting machine results in Durham County, home to Duke University and a bastion of Democratic voters. The decision, requested by Republican Governor Pat McCrory, reversed a decision by the Durham County Board of Elections (also controlled by Republicans), which had ruled that a recount was not necessary. On Thursday night, the state set a deadline of 7 p.m. Monday to complete the recount of more than 90,000 ballots, which may well finally settle the state’s governor’s race.

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It’s unlikely that the embattled governor will be able to catch Democrat Roy Cooper, who led the race by just more than 10,000 votes as of Friday evening, according to the tally on the state Board of Elections website. Cooper, the attorney general, benefitted from McCrory’s sinking approval ratings after the governor signed off on a controversial transgender bathroom law last spring. He led, albeit narrowly, in most of the polls leading up to election day. And Cooper’s lead has continued to grow since, as final vote tallies from around the state come in. But the McCrory campaign has not capitulated, mounting a series of voter challenges, most of which have been rejected.

In its demand for a recount in Durham, the campaign noted technical problems that cropped up on election day in many of the county’s precincts, and suggested computer glitches may have affected the totals.

Even as Durham County scrambles to complete its machine recount by Monday, McCrory’s allies at the conservative state-based group Civitas Institute are suing the state Board of Elections, seeking an injunction against final certification of the election over North Carolina’s same-day registration provisions. In the lawsuit, the group claims the board can’t count ballots cast by people who registered the same day, because those registrations have yet to be verified. “The Board’s certification of the election results before the completion of the verification process means that ballots from unverified registrants—and therefore invalid ballots—will be counted,” lawyers for Civitas President Francis De Luca claim in the suit. The group estimates that roughly 3,000 of the 90,000 votes cast via same-day registration are invalid—still not enough to change the outcome of the governor’s race. The District Court judge has set a hearing for Thursday, Dec. 8.

On Friday, the North Carolina NAACP announced it was filing a motion in the Board of Elections lawsuit, calling for the court to deny the injunction request. On a conference call with reporters, the NAACP’s legal counsel, Irving Joyner, accused Civitas of attempting to delay the results and relitigate a voting rights issue that had already been settled. “This is a case that does no more than raise the same issue, same-day registration, with the Circuit Court of Appeals, that has already been determined,” Joyner said, pointing to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ landmark decision in July. The court ruled then that a 2013 Republican-backed law eliminating same-day registration and establishing strict voter ID requirements, among other measures, was racially discriminatory. In striking down the voting law, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote that its provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The head of the North Carolina NAACP, the Reverend William Barber, suggested Republicans’ efforts to roll back voting rights—in the name of unproven election fraud—are part of a larger ideological contest playing out in this Southern state, which in less than a decade has lurched from solidly Republican to one of the most politically contested states in the nation. North Carolina was the site of almost constant campaigning by the presidential candidates and their surrogates in the final two months of the 2016 campaign, won narrowly by Donald Trump. GOP Senator Richard Burr also won a hard-fought re-election race in the state, one that was not initially expected to be competitive.

12_02_cooper_01 Democrat Roy Cooper leads the race for North Carolina's governorship. Chris Keane/Reuters

Cooper’s victory, if it holds, would be a rare bright spot for Democrats in a year in which they lost a handful of competitive governors’ races. In addition to defending several of their own seats, Republicans flipped control of the governor’s mansions in Missouri, New Hampshire and Vermont and now control the highest number of governorships the party has held since 1922.

Democrats also scored other statewide election victories in North Carolina, winning the race for attorney general and state auditor (a result that is also being challenged). And they reclaimed a majority on the state Supreme Court. Those posts and the governor’s office put Democrats in a strong position to check a state legislature and congressional delegation that remain dominated by staunch conservatives. And there could be national consequences: the parties have been doing battle for years over the district lines drawn for state legislative and congressional seats. The Supreme Court is now considering the state’s appeal of a federal court decision slapping down large chunks of the legislative map, ruling the way it packs minority voters into a small number of districts is unconstitutional. Congressional district lines also will be up for another redrawing after the 2020 census, which could give Democrats more opportunities to win back seats in the U.S. House, as well.

North Carolina, Barber insisted Friday, “is the only state in the south that resisted the Trump-ism tide.” And the skirmishes over the governor’s vote are part of what he said was “really a battle to try and stop changing demographics of white and black and brown people coming together and voting in a progressive manner in the South.”

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