RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Heavily Democratic Durham County must recount more than 94,000 votes in the still-undecided governor's race, North Carolina elections officials ordered on Wednesday, further delaying declaring a winner three weeks after Election Day.
The Republican-led statewide elections board voted 3-2 along party lines in favor of a Republican bid to recount the early ballots cast before Nov. 8. Durham County election officials didn't know definitively whether the recount effort will take hours or days.
Tom Stark, a Durham County voter and chief lawyer for the state Republican Party, raised questions about the tally of early votes cast in the county and added to the statewide totals late that night. The late return of Durham votes turned a lead for incumbent Republican Pat McCrory into a narrow deficit to Democrat Roy Cooper.
Cooper has since built his lead to more than 10,000. Four of the state's 100 counties haven't yet completed vote totals. McCrory could demand a recount if the final margin falls to 10,000 votes or less.
Kevin Hamilton, an attorney representing Cooper and the state Democratic Party, declined comment when asked whether the recount ruling would be appealed in court. Cooper's campaign later issued a statement saying his victory would stand up to the recount.
The surprise reversal on the election night tally was reason enough to order the recount and satisfy the public the close election has a clear winner, elections board member Jim Baker said.
"One candidate was up by 50,000 votes and in the blink of an eye he was behind," he said. "There was enough of an irregularity to make people wonder."
Stark argued testimony of technical shortcomings that forced a hand-count on election night cast doubts about whether McCrory lost in a state where Donald Trump won the presidential election and Republicans saw gains in other statewide races.
"I think there is always a possibility you could make a mistake, or worse," Stark said. "We have a reasonable suspicion."
But Hamilton argued a losing candidate's suspicions aren't sufficient to trigger the recount. Instead, state law requires substantial evidence of irregularity or misdeeds that cast doubt on an election's result, Hamilton said.
"Sometimes people are surprised and disappointed by the results of elections. But that isn't a reason to ignore the law," Hamilton said. "That's just wrong."
As his campaign offered last weekend, McCrory confirmed Wednesday in Greenville that if a hand recount of the Durham County votes were granted, he would be prepared to withdraw a request for a statewide recount if the Durham count produced the same results.
"As I stated on election night, we're in possibly the closest governor's election in state history, and I'm going to respect the process and respect the results. I expect others to do the same thing," McCrory told The Associated Press.
There is a pending lawsuit filed by the head of a conservative-leaning group demanding the state board not be allowed to finalize results until the addresses of all voters who cast ballots through same-day registration are verified. But the number of outstanding ballots likely isn't enough to change the outcome. Other county protests challenging the eligibility of other early voters essentially were set aside by the state elections board Monday.