Five thousand votes, about the population of a half-filled high school football stadium, separate the two candidates for governor in North Carolina in a race that promises to stretch well past Thanksgiving.
County election board workers overwhelmed with thousands of absentee ballots had been due to finish a final canvass this week, but many said Friday they were still unable to finalize thousands of ballots amid legal challenges over voter rolls and allegations of voter fraud.
Before all the votes are counted, election officials must decide the eligibility of more than 60,000 provisional ballots and the validity of thousands of challenged votes. They must also count absentee ballots postmarked by election day, along with military and overseas ballots, which were accepted through Thursday.
In results released Thursday evening, Republican incumbent Pat McCrory trailed Democratic Atty. Gen. Roy Cooper by 5,000 votes. Even after the ballots are judged and tallied, the race could end up in court.
Most of the questions raised by the McCrory campaign center around voters — many of them African American — who said they registered at the Division of Motor Vehicles and public assistance offices, but whose names did not appear on voter rolls on election day.
Proving such a vote ineligible is difficult. The state board must either provide a hard copy of a DMV form showing that the voter declined to register, or prove that the voter is otherwise ineligible, in cases such as a felon casting a ballot. Otherwise, the ballot is automatically counted.
The rush to validate such votes comes after a late October decision by U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs ordering the state to comply with the National Voter Registration Act and count the ballots of people who registered at a government office.
State elections board spokesman Patrick Gannon told The Times that the elections board on Friday would not finish checking the names of DMV-registered voters before the weekend.
“This is the first time this data needs to be analyzed,” Gannon said.
McCrory’s campaign filed complaints in more than half of North Carolina’s 100 counties, alleging in some cases that votes were cast by convicted felons, repeat voters or the dead. More than 10 ballot complaints centered on a North Carolina Democratic Party-funded effort to assist voters with filling out ballots. Some of the ballots appeared to be filled in by a volunteer who did not fill out a required disclosure form indicating the voter received help.
“Unfortunately, we may also have uncovered the real reason Roy Cooper fought so hard against efforts to prevent voter fraud as attorney general,” jabbed Russell Peck, McCrory’s campaign manager.
The Cooper campaign struck back. “The McCrory campaign gets more desperate in their attempts to undermine the results of this election,” Cooper campaign manager Trey Nix said. “It is clear that Gov. McCrory has no path to victory, and that Cooper’s margin of victory will only grow stronger as final vote totals continue to come in.”
All 100 county election boards informed the state that they would need to postpone completion of their vote canvass, which could set off a series of delays in announcing a winner, typically finalized in early December.
On Friday, two counties denied protests from Republicans. In Durham County, the elections board denied a request for a hand count of votes, and Halifax County found “no probable cause” for complaints of voters casting ballots in more than one state.
In a closely divided swing state which Donald Trump won with slightly over 50% of the vote and President Obama lost in 2012 by 2 percentage points, the McCrory campaign has also voiced suspicions about 90,000 votes delivered late on election night from heavily Democratic Durham County.
The North Carolina NAACP pledged to push back with representatives at every board meeting.
“Even now, we must still safeguard the fundamental right to vote and ensure that post-election procedures are properly executed,” the group said in a statement on Thursday.
The two candidates have been at odds over a bill McCrory supported that limited choices in bathrooms, widely seen as a bill targeting transgender people. Cooper refused to defend the bill in court.
If the eventual victor claims a margin of fewer than 10,000 votes, the runner-up can demand a recount.
Follow Nigel Duara on Twitter: @nigelduara