RALEIGH, N.C. – A Florida-style nightmare has unfolded in North Carolina in the 10 days since Election Day, with thousands of votes missing and the outcome of two statewide races still up in the air.
The fiasco has not reached the proportions of what happened in 2000 in Florida — in part because the presidential race was not close here. But election observers say North Carolina has been the site of some of 2004’s worst problems.
The biggest failure resulted from a computer glitch that wiped out more than 4,400 votes in one county, while other disputes have focused on how to count provisional ballots. In another county, 12,000 early and absentee votes were misplaced due to a procedural error, but later found.
Federal authorities said they plan to look into what happened in two counties that have had the most severe breakdowns.
Two statewide races – for agriculture commissioner and superintendent of public instruction – remained unresolved in North Carolina on Friday, and they were so close that recounts will be conducted in the next week. The race for state auditor was not settled until eight days after the election.
“I’d compare it to a NASCAR race where they say run 500 laps then you get to the finish and they say why not run 50 more,” said Steve Troxler, the Republican challenger for agriculture commissioner who held a narrow lead over Democrat Britt Cobb.
Although the presidential election went off relatively smoothly this year, North Carolina and several other states reported a smattering of voting problems that have affected some local races.
The most glaring failure in North Carolina occurred in Carteret County, where a machine used to store electronic ballots ran out of storage space and county officials mistakenly continued to try to save ballots. Because the machines had no memory left, 4,438 votes disappeared.
State elections officials have said that the glitch could result in a new statewide election for races that end with a margin smaller than the 4,438 lost votes.
“That’s one of the most egregious examples that we’ve run across,” said Keith Jennings, director of the Atlanta-based Count Every Vote 2004, a nonprofit election watchdog group.
Another expert said the electoral scrutiny that resulted from Florida in 2000 has not been kind to North Carolina, where 100 counties use seven different voting methods, ranging from paper ballots to touch-screen computers.
President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry in North Carolina by more than 400,000 votes in unofficial returns, so the problems will have no effect on that race.
“When you shine a brighter light on something, you’re going to see problems there that you didn’t see before,” said Justin Moore, a computer scientist and consultant to N.C. Verified Voting.
Except for the lost votes in Carteret County, Gary Bartlett, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, called the problems “easily remedied and lessons learned.”
“The big issue is what’s going to happen regarding Carteret County. That’s the single biggest issue this election,” Bartlett said.
In the agriculture commissioner’s race, Troxler led Cobb by 2,656 votes. If the vote spread remains that tight after the recount, state election officials will decide whether to hold a statewide revote because of the lost ballots in Carteret County.
In the race for state superintendent of public instruction, Democrat June Atkinson led Republican Bill Fletcher by 9,254 votes.