07/13/06 — District 10 race decision goes back to Kinston

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District 10 race decision goes back to Kinston

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on July 13, 2006 1:54 PM

RALEIGH -- State Rep. Stephen LaRoque and Willie Ray Starling will have to wait another month before the state Board of Elections makes a decision about who will be the Republican candidate in the District 10 race in November.

State board members voted 3-2 against certifying Starling's narrow win. They then voted unanimously to hold a hearing in Kinston on Aug. 7-8 to hear testimony from voters and election officials.

The state Board of Elections met Wednesday to rule on election protests from across the state, including LaRoque's protest of the results of the District 10 Republican primary, which Starling won by 11 votes in May.

The district includes all of Greene and parts of Lenoir and Wayne counties.

LaRoque's protest maintains that some unaffiliated voters in Lenoir were not given a chance to vote for him, as election law provides.

Lenoir County's Board of Elections heard his protest in May, upheld it and sent the case to the state board for a decision.

The state board could have affirmed Starling's win, called for another primary or ordered the Lenoir Board to hold a second hearing. But they said they wanted to hear more about what happened at the polls and at the Lenoir Board's meeting.

State Elections Board Chairman Larry Leake said both candidates and their lawyers cannot use information from affidavits during the next hearing. Instead, each side will be responsible for providing witnesses, testimony and information to prove or disprove whether voting irregularities occurred.

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

LaRoque's lawyers proved in Wednesday's hearing that state law requires a poll worker to ask an unaffiliated voter what, if any, party he or she would like to vote for.

State Board of Elections member Charles Winfree said board members have frowned upon poll workers asking unaffiliated voters which party they would like to vote for in the past, because the way the question is worded could determine which party the voter chooses.

Michael Crowell, the lawyer representing Starling, opened his case by saying that there were some unaffiliated voters in Lenoir who signed an affidavit swearing they were not told they could vote in the Republican primary. He said they should have known why they were going to the polls or asked a poll worker about their options before casting a ballot.

Lenoir County voters cast ballots using a touch-screen machine. After a person makes a selection, the machine requires the voter to verify that decision twice before the ballot is cast, Crowell pointed out.

If a voter had a problem with making the wrong selection or not having the chance to vote in the Republican primary, Crowell said that person had ample opportunity to correct the problem.

Out of the 20 affidavits submitted on behalf of LaRoque's election protest, Crowell said he did not believe they created enough of an irregularity to change the outcome of the vote.

The results of a Lenoir County election audit showed that there were 44 voters who cast ballots in the primary, but were ineligible to vote, LaRoque's lawyer Roger Knight said. Since it couldn't be determined who those voters cast ballots for, Knight said that could have had an effect on the election's outcome.

Crowell argued that the irregularity doesn't justify calling a new election, because many irregularities take place during a normal election. The state board agreed, noting that a new election in District 10 would cost about $75,000.

The Lenoir Board of Elections consists of Oscar Herring, Dorothea Branch and Bobby Waller.

The state Board consists of Chairman Leake of Asheville, Lorraine Shinn of Greenville, Charles Winfree of Greensboro, Genevieve Sims of Raleigh and Robert Cordle of Charlotte. Leake, Shinn and Cordle voted against Starling's certification as the winner.