07/16/06 — District 10 rematch will cost county

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District 10 rematch will cost county

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on July 16, 2006 9:52 AM

A dispute in the North Carolina House District 10 race could cost taxpayers in three counties money -- depending on the decision the North Carolina Board of Elections makes next month.

Rep. Stephen LaRoque filed a petition challenging the May primary vote that gave Wayne County resident Willie Ray Starling the nod to run for the House seat.

State Board of Elections members decided Wednesday to hold a hearing in Lenoir County before making a decision on whether they will certify Starling as the Republican candidate or will uphold LaRoque's election protest and call for a new vote.

If the state Board of Elections calls for a new election, state Deputy Director Johnnie McLean said Greene, Lenoir and Wayne counties would have to hold new votes, even though the only known irregularities occurred in Lenoir.

That could cost all three counties about $40,000. Wayne County's share of that bill would be about $6,500.

State law says a new election must be held in the entire jurisdiction of the original election. Voters who have registered since the primary will also have the chance to cast ballots in the new contest -- even if they did not vote in May.

The official results of the May primary had Starling winning District 10, which consists of all of Greene County and parts of Wayne and Lenoir counties, by 11 votes.

LaRoque protested the results claiming that some voters in Lenoir who would have voted for him were not given the chance by poll workers. Many of the unaffiliated voters who submitted affidavits claimed poll workers did not ask them if they wanted to vote a Republican, Democrat or straight unaffiliated ticket, which is required by law.

The protest was heard this week in Raleigh.

The state board did not make a decision Wednesday, but decided instead to head to Kinston beginning Aug. 7 to investigate the Lenoir County Board of Elections' handling of the primary.

These new voters, if they choose to go to the polls, could swing the election either way, said Gary Sims, Wayne County Board of Elections director. Even so, Sims said he expects a lower turnout than the primary for the new vote.

As of this week, there are more than 4,000 Republican and unaffiliated eligible voters in the four Wayne County precincts of District 10. Only about 330 voters went to the Wayne County polls in May.

If the results remain the same in Wayne and Greene counties after a new election, LaRoque would only have to gain 12 votes in his home county to change the election outcome. If Starling gained more votes in any of the counties, though, it would solidify his nomination for the November ballot and allow him to begin preparing to campaign against Democrat Van Braxton.

Sims said it costs the county about $70,000 to conduct a primary in Wayne County. If a new District 10 election was called for, it would only involve four precincts in the eastern part of the county, which would reduce costs.

"For that kind of race, only four precincts are open," Sims said.

Although the number of precincts and voters would be lower than other elections, Sims said the county would still have to pay for ballots, precinct officials, part-time employees, maintenance fees, advertising, voting machine programming and any other expenses. The costs would only be somewhere between $6,000 and $7,000.

Greene County would not be as lucky as Wayne. District 10 covers all of Greene County. If a new election were called, it would be same in Greene County as conducting a normal primary, which would cost taxpayers about $15,000, Greene Board of Elections Director Jane Monroe said.

Each county could find it difficult to pay for a new election, if it were called, officials say. In Wayne, the county has already completed its budget process. Because the county operates on a zero-based budget, departments like the Board of Elections receive only the amount they project they will need for the year. There is no room for an additional expense like a new election.

Wayne Commissioner Atlas Price said officials would have to shuffle the budget to find any additional money.

The county's options are to take the money from current expenses, the fund balance or any unallocated funds. The commissioners have been working to build the county's fund balance for several years to prepare for costs associated with capital improvements and wouldn't want to take money from that fund, Price said. But, he added that if a new election were called, he and the commissioners could find money to pay for it.

"I think we could probably handle that," Price said.

But aside from money, time is another problem if a new election were called. The Wayne, Greene and Lenoir boards of elections already are preparing for November's general election. Within the next month, Sims said he and his staff will need to prepare for one-stop voting. If a new election were called, it would stretch his staff's ability to get ready for November.

"We'd have to be running tests and do one-stop voting. I think we'd be crunched because of the timeline. But if that's what happens, then we'll take care of it," Sims said.