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Update: Winterville voting issue likely headed for superior court

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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 Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The North Carolina State Board of Election on Wednesday said the special election for an unexpired seat on the Winterville Town Council cannot be certified and the case is likely headed to Wake County Superior Court.

The State Elections Board attorney sent a letter to the Pitt County Board of Elections Office saying that because of voting irregularities the election outcome cannot be certified and if the county board requests it, the case would be taken to Wake County Superior Court, which could order a new election.

At an emergency meeting, the Pitt County Election Board stopped short of asking for a new election and instead acknowledged the election could not be certified and said it would follow the guidance of state officials and the court.

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Election staff is working to resolve a glitch that allowed 10 people to improperly vote in Winterville’s municipal election, officials said this week.

Deputy Elections Director Tony McQueen is working with Pitt County’s geographic information system administrator to develop a new system for editing voting data to ensure it matches GIS data.

Elections staff has determined a coding error incorrectly placed a section of Mockingbird Lane and Oakwood Drive in the municipal limits of Winterville, allowing residents to vote in the Nov. 7 town council election. Winterville is annexing the neighborhood, but the process has not been completed.

An audit of the data, which compares the elections office information to the county’s GIS information, failed to catch the error, McQueen said.

“I’ve spent sleepless nights about it. It just won’t go away,” McQueen said. “I feel terrible because (the election result) was a one-vote difference.”

The error was discovered as the Pitt County Board of Elections worked to finalize the results of the Winterville races.

One was a special election to fill an unexpired term. Three candidates ran, and the election night results showed candidate John Hill won by eight votes.

When the final vote count was conducted 10 days later, seven provisional ballots and nine supplemental absentee ballots were added to the count giving a one-vote victory to Ricky Hines, who placed second on election night. Hill asked for a recount, which was conducted Nov. 21. The results were unchanged.

Elections Director Dave Davis said Hill and Councilman Tony Moore requested information on who voted. They discovered 10 people who lived outside Winterville’s municipal limits were allowed to vote.

The 10 people, who lived in Mellon Downs subdivision, which is off Laurie Ellis Road, live along streets that fall partially in the municipal limits and partially outside the limits but are scheduled for annexation.

McQueen said the county GIS data correctly shows addresses for 10 voters are outside the town limits, but that didn’t show up in the elections audit.

McQueen said when the election office gets information about new subdivisions or houses, the information is entered into elections office database and he assigns the pertinent district information to it.

When Mockingbird Lane and Oakwood Drive were first added to the elections office database, the sections were within the city limits and were coded as such.

When the section in question was added, it too was coded as being in the city limits.

“What should have happened is I should have created another two sections for those roads which were not in the city limits,” McQueen said.

Currently, the city of Greenville is the only municipality that sends its annexation data directly to the elections office. McQueen said the rest comes from the county planning office. McQueen said he plans to work with the county’s nine other municipalities to develop a method of receiving annexation data directly from them.

State election laws have limited the Pitt County Board of Elections’ ability to respond to the situation, said Dave Davis, elections director.

Four of the 10 people cast ballots during the early voting period, Davis said. These ballots are numbered and could have been removed before the canvass. However, the six votes cast on election day can’t be retrieved, Davis.

Once the results were finalized, a protest filing and subsequent hearing would have been the only way to address the irregularities.

Hill said he didn’t file a protest because “the appeals process is pretty messed up.”

A current court battle over the appointment of N.C. State Board of Elections members has prevented the appointment of a state board and left Pitt County with only two board members instead of three.

Hill said that would have required a Superior Court judge to hear a protest, and he didn’t want that because he didn’t want to complicate things for Hines.

Hill also said he believed the mistake was a “simple oversight” and not “malicious.”

While Hill decided against a protest, Councilman Moore sent an email on Nov. 30 stating the town of Winterville did not receive a fair election and the issue needed to be addressed.

Hines, Winterville Mayor Doug Jackson and Councilman Johnny Moye are scheduled to be sworn into office on Monday.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570. Follower her on Twitter @GingerLGDR.

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