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Winterville council seat remains in question

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Winterville candidates Ricky Hines and John Hill talk during a recount of votes at the Pitt County Board of Elections Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017.

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By Seth Thomas Gulledge
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Tuesday morning recount confirmed Winterville Town Council candidate Ricky Hines defeated John Hill by one vote, but the results may still be challenged due to the inclusion of 10 ineligible ballots. 

Hines won the two-year remainder of the term held by the late Ron Cooper with 425 votes to Hill’s 424 votes. David Hooks, who also was running for the seat received 375 votes.  

“I’m just elated to be a winner again,” Hines said. “The first time, there was a lot of suspense, but for the recount I was figuring it would be the same. I was happy. You just have to let the process play out.” 

The count was a reversal of election-night results, when the tally showed Hill received 421 votes, Hines 413 and Hooks 374. On Friday, however, 23 supplemental absentee ballots and 122 provisional ballots were added countywide during the official election canvass.

Supplemental absentee ballots are ballots that were mailed and postmarked by 5 p.m. on Election Day — in this case Nov. 7 — but were not received at the election office until the third business day after Election Day, Davis said. Provisional ballots are votes that have to be certified because of question about the voter’s eligibility.

The additions altered the outcome of the Winterville race, but not other races in the county. Hill sent a recount request to the Board of Elections on Friday afternoon.

Though the results of the race are now final, Hill has the chance to challenge the results based on the inclusion of 10 ballots submitted from ineligible voters. The voters in question came from the Mellow Downs subdivision in the south Winterville.

Part of the neighborhood currently is in the process of being annexed, according Pitt County Elections Director Dave Davis, but the process is not complete, meaning they should not have voted in the election.

Davis said of the 10, six people voted on Election Day, so their ballots are not retrievable and it is impossible for the Elections Board to determine for whom they voted. The other four voted at a one-stop site before election day, so their votes can be retrieved.

Davis said the Board of Elections would only make such a decision if an eligible individual protested the vote and a subsequent hearing by the board determined that the protest had merit.

Anyone affected by the outcome had until 5 p.m. on Tuesday to protest but no one did, according to Davis. Because of the recount, the three candidates have until noon today to protest if they wish. 

On Tuesday, Hill said he was not sure if he would protest.

“I’ve got to make a decision, and I need to meet with the folks here at the election’s office to decide what our next steps are. Is this worth going through an appeals process and protesting this vote?” he said. “There’s several options and I can’t guarantee that any of them would be a great option, we just have the weigh out our choices. Again, I’m happy that Mr. Hines won, but I think principle is the concern at this point.”

Hill said he believed both candidates would be in a better place if a recount could be conducted without the 10 ineligible votes. He said it would lead to either his own victory or lend more credibility to Hines’ victory. 

“We know there’s an issue, we have indentified those, and verified that it is certainly the case, so we have a good case for protest of the vote,” he said. “Again this has nothing to do with Mr. Hines, we just want to make sure we’re doing our best to keep our election process legitimate and honest.”

Hines said he had no control over the perception of credibility, and would do his best at his new role for the town. He said though it is unfortunate that mistake happened, he believes it will serve as a learning experience for everyone involved, and hopefully prevent it from happening again. He said the best prevention of something like this happening though, is getting more residents out to the polls.

“This contest was very close,” he said. “We had 1,316 people who voted in Winterville. But just think, we have more citizens than that in Winterville. So if everybody would exercise their right to vote that lives in the municipality, we wouldn’t be here, with me winning by one vote, or Mr. Hill losing by one vote.

“Nothing against the people that came out to vote, the 10 that are being questioned. These people were just trying to do the right thing, I don’t think there was any malicious intent. They were thinking their subdivision was already annexed in.”

Contact Seth Gulledge at sgulledge@reflector.com and 329-9579

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