In Durham County last Friday, the county Board of Elections unanimously dismissed a protest of the validity of Durham’s vote tallies from North Carolina GOP General Counsel and self-styled concerned voter Tom Stark. Nearly 94,000 votes from six precincts across the county were in question, as memory cards in voting machines gave an error reading while aggregating candidates’ totals together and required manual tabulation by the Board on Election Night. Because, however, the Board found no evidence of any incongruities—the manual tallies perfectly matched the printed outputs of the tabulating machines in the governor’s race, the race here in question—the Board dismissed the protest unanimously.
But why, it bears asking, might Stark have then protested at all?
By initial counts, Roy Cooper won the North Carolina governorship by around 5,000 votes. Despite backing Donald Trump and re-electing Republican Senator Richard Burr by comfortable margins, North Carolinians seemed to boot incumbent Governor Pat McCrory, who had maneuvered from business-friendly “Carolina Comeback” governor into bathroom-bill renown. Before the electoral dust had a chance to settle, though, Stark requested the recount, alleging malfeasance on the part of the board.
On Election Day, according to Stark’s protest, data from voting machines at six precincts in Durham “corrupted in a manner that may affect the outcome of a number of election contests.” The machines, which both store data on a memory card and print out tapes of vote tallies, saw their memory cards overwhelmed by the County Commissioner race, which asked Durhamites to vote for five candidates and therefore needed five times the memory capacity—the sheer numbers rendered the cards able to count the votes but not to aggregate the totals together. Since card malfunction could theoretically also signal wider systems failure, Stark argued that the only way to be sure about the results was to recount the ballots themselves.
As Democratic Board member Dawn Baxton pointed out in an initial hearing on Tuesday, though, there was no evidence to suggest the need for a recount; all, by the looks of it, was on the up-and-up. At Friday’s evidentiary hearing, witness Brian Neesby, who works with the state on the voting machines, confirmed Baxton’s take, as the manual tabulations in the governor’s race matched perfectly the data streams they came from (other tabulations were off by a vote or three).
The pervasive banalities and technicalities were punctuated by moments of high drama: Stark’s star witness, one Mr. Posthill, testified that he was at the Durham County Board of Elections on Election Night, and, while he watched the Board handle a pile of the voting machines’ memory cards, he heard a “blonde woman, I don’t know who” sitting with the Board, joking that after Cooper was elected she thought she would have a job in Raleigh awaiting her—allegedly followed by “giggling,” and chummy “I hope so”s from her fellows.
The assembled crowd, packed and near-totally anti-recount, became breathily agitated. Some literally hissed. Someone yelled out “names!” Was the woman in question in the court today? Posthill didn’t know. Republican Board Chairman William Brian, Jr., courtly yet in a constant state of ruffle, interrupted to ask, “would anyone like to object on grounds of hearsay?” The audience exhaled vocally. Yes, Governor-elect Roy Cooper’s attorney said, he would.(1)
After the evidence was presented, Baxton motioned to dismiss the protest. Chairman Brian asked whether anyone would like to second that motion. Silence, the crowd on edge. “I’ll second the motion,” Brian sighed, and the crowd applauded, much to the genteel chairman’s chagrin.
The protest may yet ripple beyond the confines of its handy dismissal. It follows on a shameful history of right-wing voter suppression in the state. The same North Carolina GOP that Stark represents professionally has been in and out of federal courts for the last few years defending overly restrictive voting laws, which were tightened significantly after the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.(2)
In July, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a North Carolina voter ID law, saying it deliberately targeted African-American voters with “almost surgical precision.” In August, a federal district court ordered that twenty eight voting districts in North Carolina be redrawn, as “race was the predominate factor motivating the drawing of all challenged districts.” A witness at Friday’s evidentiary hearing, D’atra Jackson, relayed these cases as part of a broader narrative of homegrown disenfranchisement.
Many of the recent voting restrictions passed in North Carolina—as elsewhere—have hinged on the specter of “voter fraud,” even though voter fraud has been shown not to affect American elections much at all. There is an immediate tactical value, though, and a broader narrative value in casting doubt on the legitimacy of the electoral process, when more stringent restrictions translate to suppression of voting blocs that tend to vote Democrat.(3) (Durham voted for Roy Cooper at a higher rate than any other NC County.)
Right now, provisional and absentee ballots are still being counted across the state; if, after that count, the candidates are within 10,000 votes of one another, then McCrory can ask for a statewide recount, too. That state process is separate from county-level ones; depending on the methods used to tally votes, there might well have been small discrepancies between the two recounts—there is, after all, room for human error even as elections become more automated. Such discrepancies could then be pointed to as reasons to imagine the voting process was compromised, and thus for distrust of results from counties involved.
If too much doubt remains regarding the election’s conduct, state law allows a candidate to petition to punt the ultimate decision to the NC General Assembly, where Republicans currently have a supermajority in both houses. And if McCrory—who has now protested in 52 of North Carolina’s 100 counties—can convince the body politic that it can’t trust itself, he will certainly be able to retain power another four years, popular vote notwithstanding.
Here, it is worth remembering that there was no evidence supporting the need for a recount in the first place. But because of the self-proclaimed “low bar” of the Board of Elections for allowing protests to progress to evidentiary hearings, Stark was able to cast doubt flailingly across every step of the voting process in Durham. His worries expanded from memory-card-centric to generalized epistemological doubts about how we might know, or trust, anything as certain in an election.
Were, Stark asked, the voting machines on during the entire early voting process? So then couldn’t people be voting that whole time? Who had custody of them in the interim between early voting and Election Day? Couldn’t the memory cards theoretically be hacked, their data tampered with? Stark, to be clear, had no evidence that any of this actually had any bearing on Durham’s election results; he just knew that votes had been turned in late into the night—some of Durham’s polls stayed open late due to other computer issues on Election Day(4)—and that some cards had read “error.” But, as he told TV reporters afterwards, “in the absence of information, the board decided it anyway.”
Stark read that “absence of information” as reason to disbelieve the electoral results, and his suspicion bled outward into the process more generally. While the proximate challenge was dismissed, it contributes to a larger project of suggesting that, well, we just can’t trust some voters! Can you prove that machines never malfunction? Can you prove nobody snuck into voting locations overnight to stuff ballot boxes? Can you prove that the Earth wasn’t created 10,000 years ago and the fossil record implanted into its crust to mislead scientists into thinking it was older? Can you prove that you aren’t just a mind sitting in a vat, only imagining you exist in the world?
The seeds of doubt fall onto especially fertile soil when the charges levied are against voters of color. Pat McCrory, in his non-concession speech on Election Night, mentioned that votes “just came in” late from Durham, a “sudden emergence of over 90,000 votes that weren’t counted this morning.” His crowd booed lustily, and one man, responding quite reasonably to McCrory’s obvious subtext, screamed “they stole it, they stole the election!” McCrory promised his supporters that “we’re going to check everything, we’re going to make sure that every vote counts in North Carolina.”
That is pure doublespeak, reaffirming a vocal commitment to the principles of democracy while actively attempting to undermine faith in the institutions that allow it to function. McCrory, remember, oversaw the implementation of literally unconstitutional voting-restriction measures aimed especially at Black voters. In Wednesday’s probable cause hearing, Chairman Brian expressed vocal displeasure with attempts to cast doubts on Durham’s votes, particularly because of its high number of Black voters. Still, here was Stark, concerned citizen, losing his protest, yet holding court afterwards with TV cameras, wondering aloud why Durham wouldn’t “prefer to be open.”
And this is how the disenfranchisement sausage(5) is made. So even if this election does not end up decided by the General Assembly rather than North Carolinians themselves, the dastardly upshot is that now, when somebody Googles “Durham County election,” she will find that there was an official challenge to the election results. That a lawyer was interviewed on TV, speaking in reasonable-sounding terms about why the voting data is untrustworthy.
Two or four years from now, her friend might ask her “wait, didn’t Durham have something weird happen in the last election? Like people said there was maybe voter fraud?” To which the answer would be yes. And while a Board hearing would stop my argument here on charges of speculation, the Googler and her friend might agree that we need stricter voting laws just to be sure. Just to be sure that “every vote counts in North Carolina.” But whose votes, in this case, are those?
Americans just saw how half-truths, paranoia, and outright lies can win elections. Accusations of “rigging” plagued the presidential race, both galvanizing those for whom voter fraud is a rallying cry and deepening mistrust of anything “establishment”—even the very institutions that allow a political system to elect the candidates who are hammering away at their foundations. Misinformation, repeated often enough and from enough angles, lodges in our shared worldview, eventually taking on an air of legitimacy.
In Durham on Friday, if just for the time being, the system worked. Cooper’s representation, in his closing remarks, applauded the Board—which is Republican, for heaven’s sake!—for getting the votes tallied accurately despite the card malfunctions. That is why, he said, you have two data collection streams. “That is exactly the way that you run an election… There is a real cost to undermining the public confidence in the outcome of the election.” Democratic State Senator Mike Woodard, also in attendance, echoed his sentiments, giving credit to the Republican board and suggesting that “elected officials and these appointed boards should be courageous and follow the evidence.”
But he also gave credit to the conspicuous citizen engagement, which for Woodard “lets me know to stay on point.”
We had all better be staying on point now. Today, the price of being suckered could be your vote. Tomorrow, it could be your democracy.
(1) I, too, was at the County Board of Elections on Election night, to get a handle on the goings-on. I witnessed a different sort of questionable behavior: a middle-aged Black man drove down to learn which precinct he should report to so as to avoid voting on a provisional ballot. He found, instead, that he was “inactive” in the North Carolina voter registration database, despite filling out his voter registration paperwork. He had been mailed a follow-up “confirmation letter” requesting a verification of certain details and neglected to mail that sheet back, rendering his initial registration meaningless. He left the Board dejected informed that if he were allowed to vote that evening, it would be with a provisional ballot, not sure to be counted.
(2) Again allowing Southern states with discriminatory voting histories to alter their voting laws without federal pre-approval.
(3) To wit: African Americans.
(4) Leading in one case to a polling place not functioning for an hour and a half, which most certainly does affect vote counts.
(5) Not tasty, not healthy.