It was a statewide race that wasn’t decided for 10 months, and then not by a vote of the people but by 114 legislators. Now, with North Carolina’s governor’s race still undecided after two weeks, political observers are taking another look at the disputed 2004 election for state superintendent of public instruction. The race tested a little-known provision of the state constitution, came close to a showdown with the state Supreme Court and set a precedent for deciding contested elections – perhaps including this year’s gubernatorial race. Since trailing Democrat Roy Cooper by around 5,000 votes on election night, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has seen his allies file protests in more than half the state’s counties. Meanwhile Cooper’s lead has risen to what more than 7,700 votes, according to the state elections board. Cooper puts the margin at more than 8,500. McCrory has officially asked for a recount even as election officials are still counting votes and reviewing challenges. And whoever ends up trailing after the official count could appeal the results – directly to the General Assembly. That’s what happened in 2004.
Democrat June Atkinson, a public schools administrator, was running against Republican Bill Fletcher, a longtime member of the Wake County school board. On election night she led by about 8,500 votes out of 3.3 million cast.
But Fletcher disputed at least 11,000 out-of-precinct provisional ballots – enough to potentially flip the election – according to a 2007 account by Bob Joyce, a UNC School of Government expert. Fletcher argued that the N.C. State Board of Elections had violated the state constitution by allowing people to cast provisional ballots outside their precinct. When the Democratic-controlled elections board upheld the balloting, Fletcher appealed to the courts.
The case made its way to the state Supreme Court. Atkinson questioned its jurisdiction, citing a constitutional provision that said contested council of state elections go to the General Assembly.