Winterville election results heading to court
By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector
Thursday, December 7, 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 heading 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 in the form of 10 voters improperly casting ballots, the election outcome cannot be certified. The state board’s attorney, Josh Lawson, wrote “it is the intent of the State Board Office to initiate proceedings before the Superior Court of Wake County following the agency’s receipt of any request for a new election that originates from a county board of elections.”
At Wednesday’s emergency meeting, the Pitt County Board of Elections stopped short of asking for a new election. The local elections board wrote a letter acknowledging the election could not be certified and it “sends this matter to the N.C. State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement who in turn will submit it to the Wake County Superior Court for determination if a new election or other needed action should take place.”
This action means Ricky Hines, who was declared the winner of the unexpired seat after the Nov. 17 canvass, will not be sworn in when Mayor Doug Jackson and Councilmen Johnny Moye and Mark Smith take their oaths during Monday’s Winterville Town Council meeting.
Pitt County officials said it is their understanding that John Hill, who was appointed to the seat after the death of Ron Cooper earlier this year, will remain on council for the foreseeable future.
“Hopefully we’ll get a new election and a new election soon. Then the people can decide who they want to represent them,” Hines said. “Hopefully will have a speedier election so the right person can be in place.”
Hill, Hines and John Hooks sought to fill the remaining two years of the seat’s unexpired term. The unofficial election night results showed Hill won by eight votes, with Hines placing second.
During the canvass seven provisional ballots and nine supplemental absentee ballots were added to the count and Hines won by one vote. Hill requested a recount which was scheduled on Nov. 21.
During that weekend, Hill discovered that 10 people living in a part of Mellons Down subdivision that was outside Winterville’s municipal limits had been allowed to vote because of a clerical error.
Four of the votes were filed during early voting, which is a form of absentee voting, and could have been identified and removed, Davis said. However, the other six votes were cast on election day and couldn’t have been removed.
When the recount produced the same results — Hines winning by one vote — Hill decided not to pursue a protest.
Davis said it was his understanding that without a protest, the election results stood despite the irregularity.
Hill was not present at Wednesday’s meeting but Ginny Cooper, Ron Cooper’s widow, was.
“Ron would want to be sure. He was always very thorough and he would want to be sure that it was done properly so nobody down the road could consider the person illegitimate,” she said. “He would want everything to be right.”
In Winterville, at-large elections are held for the five council seats and mayor, meaning everyone in the town votes.
The Winterville mayoral race and two other council seats also were on the Nov. 7 ballot. The question was raised if the irregularities with the 10 votes voided those results. Davis said because of the larger margin of victory in those races, the 10 votes couldn’t affect the outcome and the results stand.
“Those 10 votes could have gone to Mr. Hooks, it could have been 10 votes for Mr. Hines or 10 votes for Mr. Hill,” Hines said. “Also, I understood I lost by eight votes on the night of election. Those 10 votes were in play then but those 10 votes came more into play when things turned.”
Hines said there have to be assurances such an error will never occur again.
“It could have all been resolved if, when the town took in the subdivision, they should have taken in the whole subdivision whether houses were built or not instead of taking just what existed,” Hines said. “Going forward the town needs to look at how they incorporate subdivisions; they either take the whole subdivision or not.”
Davis said he met with Pitt County Manager Scott Elliott to develop goals for improving the process of verifying where voters live. Davis said his staff will be working with the county’s 10 municipalities to have them directly submit annexation information to the elections office. Currently the city of Greenville is the only municipality to do so.
Patrick Nelson, the Pitt County elections board chairman, said Hill and Hines have been nothing but class acts.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation and I hope I never have to deal with (a similar situation) again,” Nelson said.
He also noted that an ongoing legal battle over who seats the state elections board has left the state with no functioning body to guide state staff or county boards. The lack of a state board has also means the Pitt County board is short one member, because no replacement for former member Mark Stewart has been selected.
Contact Ginger Livingston at email@example.com or 252-329-9570. Follow her on Twitter @GingerLGDR.