05/23/06 — Kinston sends decision to Raleigh

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Kinston sends decision to Raleigh

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on May 23, 2006 1:52 PM

KINSTON -- The Lenoir County Board of Elections ruled today to honor a protest filed by state Rep. Stephen LaRoque over the results of the May Republican primary in that county.

The state Board of Elections will now hold a hearing on the protest.

LaRoque lost to challenger Willie Ray Starling in the District 10 primary, but claimed that some voters who would have voted for him were denied the proper ballots by poll workers. District 10 includes all of Greene County and parts of Lenoir and Wayne.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties permit unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in their primaries, but voters must choose a Democratic, Republican or straight unaffiliated ballot.

Starling won by 11 votes.

LaRoque filed for a recount after the canvass results were made final. State law says that a candidate has the right to order a recount if the difference between the votes for that candidate and the prevailing candidate is not more than one percent of the total votes cast in that race. Starling finished with 913 votes to LaRoque's 902. In Wayne County, Starling won 277-57. In Lenoir, LaRoque won 733-500. Starling held a 136-112 edge in Greene.

The results did not change after the recount and the Lenoir County Board of Elections met Monday morning to hear arguments in the election protest. They reached no decision and met again today.

The board, consisting of Dorothea Branch, Oscar Herring and Bobby Waller, listened Monday as Roger Knight, the attorney representing LaRoque, said all he and his client had to prove was that there was a voting irregularity or violation of election law during the primary.

Knight said some unaffiliated voters in Lenoir County asked to vote for a candidate in the Republican primary but were told by polling officials that they could not receive a Republican ballot. Others were not given a ballot for the race and some unaffiliated voters were not asked which primary race they wanted to vote in, he said.

An audit conducted by the Lenoir Board of Elections Director Dana King determined that 31 ballots issued were to ineligible voters and eight voters were given the wrong ballot.

"This adds up to more than the 11 votes. It shows a small, but important irregularity. It's also a violation of elections law, because they were not asked which party they wished to vote for," Knight said.

Michael Crowell, the attorney representing Starling, said Knight did not prove any voting irregularities.

"The burden of proof is on LaRoque and his attorney to show any irregularities and how they could have affected the outcome of the election, and there is not enough to show any discrepancies," Crowell said.

Also, voters wanting to vote for LaRoque should have raised any concerns or asked questions before casting their ballots, he added.

"If voters went with the intention to vote for LaRoque, they should've known that they had a choice," Crowell said.

This morning, Mrs. Branch made a recommendation for the board to dismiss the protest, but she could not get a second from another board member. Herring said his interpretation of the law is that a poll worker is supposed to ask a voter what ballot that person wants.

Herring then recommended to honor the protest filed by LaRoque and have the state Board of Elections conduct its own hearing. Mrs. Branch seconded the motion, but then voted against it. Board Chairman Bobby Waller voted for the measure and said the Lenoir board would submit its documentation to the state board asking for a new election.

State Board of Elections Executive Director Gary Bartlett said any decision made by the local board can be appealed to the state Board of Elections. Then, the state board has the power to request new information, accept the findings of fact or disagree with the local board's conclusion.

The state board's decision can be appealed to the Wake County Superior Court and, then, to the North Carolina Supreme Court. Although it is possible to continue the appeals process after the state board reaches a conclusion, Bartlett said it rarely happens.