Torren Stanley casts a ballot while precinct worker Belle Everette looks on at the Edgecombe County, Administration Building in Tarboro, NC. Calvin Adkins / Carolina Public Press.

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The federal races are all but decided, if not yet called, in North Carolina. Unless the yet-to-be-counted ballots break in an all-but-impossible way for their challengers, the Old North State will favor President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis.

But races for control over powerful state offices are still very much in the running. 

Democratic N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley trails Republican challenger Paul Newby by the razor-thin margin of 3,742 votes. Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein leads his Republican challenger, Jim O’Neill, by 10,769 votes. 

Both margins are well within the number of ballots that are left to be counted, even at the lowest estimates. 

Power hangs in the balance.

As head legal counsel for the state’s Department of Justice representing all state agencies and departments, the attorney general selects which cases to prioritize, including elections rules, environmental regulations and consumer protection measures. 

The chief justice appoints key positions in the judicial system and directs the overall operation of the state’s court system, as well as issuing opinions on the cases before the state Supreme Court. 

The remaining votes will come from by-mail ballots, including from both civilian and military voters, and from provisional ballots. The biggest share will be from civilian by-mail voters, who this year are more likely to be registered Democrats. 

All told, up to 171,000 remaining ballots potentially could be counted in this election, according to reporting by the News & Observer, though the final number will be far fewer.

Some votes are in the bank. County elections boards have accepted about 32,000 absentee-by-mail ballots from Election Day through Friday morning. 

The N.C. State Board of Elections reports another 99,000 absentee-by-mail ballots that are yet to be returned. The state does not know how many are currently en route to boards of elections, or how many of those voters decided instead to cast votes in-person on Election Day. Ultimately, only a fraction of those votes will be received and counted. 

There are also 41,000 provisional ballots, a little under half of which will have their votes counted, if historical trends hold. 

Counties will finish the total tally of ballots received, accepted and votes counted the night of Friday, Nov. 13. 

If any of these races conclude within a 0.5% margin or 10,000 votes, whichever is lower, the second-place finisher has an automatic right to a recount, which rarely changes more than a handful of votes. These races are not subject to runoff elections.   

The state’s top attorney

Attorney General Stein won election in 2016 and spent much of his term suing the Trump administration, including over its handling of the census, a rollback of endangered species protections, reducing vehicle emissions standards, the separation of migrant families and changes to the U.S. Postal Service ahead of the election.

O’Neill, a longtime prosecutor and Forsyth County’s elected district attorney, ran for attorney general in 2016 but lost the Republican primary to Stein’s 2016 challenger, Buck Newton. This year, O’Neill has tied his campaign to Trump, tweeting that he will stand with the president to “defend our police, preserve law & order, & keep our families, neighborhoods, & businesses safe.” 

Even if he catches up to Stein with the remaining ballots, O’Neill is unlikely to work with Trump, who is now behind in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania, only one or two of which would need to go to Biden for him to claim the White House.

But O’Neill would have the opportunity to use his authority to oppose action by a Biden administration, much as Stein has done with Trump. 

The attorney general’s office also plays a role in local judicial matters, stepping in where local district attorneys make a request for assistance or have a conflict of interest. 

The job is often seen by political pundits as a springboard for a gubernatorial run. Democratic Govs. Roy Cooper and Mike Easley both served as attorney general prior to their runs for the state’s highest office. 

Attorneys general can also influence state election law. In September and October, Stein’s office represented the N.C. State Board of Elections when the board agreed to a settlement that extended the ballot receipt deadline by six days. The remaining by-mail ballots are expected to favor Democratic candidates.

The candidates sparred over the handling of rape kits, with Stein lodging accusations about mishandling and neglect of kits in television ads O’Neill calls false.

Top judicial spot still up for grabs

The outcome of the chief justice race won’t shift the balance of the state’s highest court — even if Beasley is defeated, Democrats maintain a 4-3 advantage. But the role of chief justice, particularly during a pandemic, is critical to how the court system runs throughout the state. At the outset of the coronavirus crisis, Beasley implemented emergency directives mandating protocols and procedures for courts across the state. The chief justice role makes determinations about administrative matters such as court closings and magistrate responsibilities. 

The chief justice also appoints the chief justice of the Court of Appeals. The current chief of the Court of Appeals, Linda McGee, is set to retire at the end of the year with the winner of the chief justice contest naming her replacement. The head of the court holds power on constitutional claims involving legislative actions at the Superior Court level because he or she appoints three-judge panels who hear such cases. 

Beasley, the court’s first Black woman justice, campaigned on pledges for transparency and continued efforts to make the court system more accessible, particularly through better technology. 

Newby, who has served on the court since 2004, campaigned on fair, impartial and timely administration of justice. He is the only remaining Republican member of the court from the 2015 decision that upheld Opportunity Scholarships, or vouchers for low-income students in the state. 

All politics is local

While the GOP swept the state legislative races, a few remain in play. In Wilmington’s Senate District 9, Republican Challenger Mike Lee declared victory but incumbent Democrat Harper Peterson trails by fewer than 1,500 votes, while a rematch in Fayetteville’s Senate District 19 shows incumbent Kirk deViere holding a narrow lead over Republican challenger Wesley Meredith

In the state House, a few candidates hold their breath as absentee and provisional ballots get counted. Democrat challenger Brian Farkas holds onto a lead of fewer than 1,000 votes against incumbent Republican and Pitt County doctor Perrin Jones in House District 9.

In the 63rd House District, Democrat Ricky Hurtado is poised to serve as the sole Latino representative in either chamber, but his victory margin against Republican incumbent Stephen Ross is fewer than 400 votes in Alamance County. 

Local races for school boards, county commissions and city councils are frequently close, but clusters of late ballots that happen to land in the right jurisdictions could result in changes of hundreds of votes in some local races.

For example, in Buncombe County, fewer than 250 votes separate school board candidates Peggy Buchanan and Linda Tatsapaugh, about a 0.25% difference.

Only 1,026 votes, about 0.8% separates the third- and fourth-place finishers for Asheville City Council, in which the top three candidates will serve. While the odds are there will not be enough change in the outcome when the additional ballots come in and third-place finisher Kim Roney will get the seat over Keith Young, it’s mathematically possible, for now, that the outcome could change.

Close races like this exist across the state in this year with such a large number of late-arriving ballots.

State law requires a margin of 1% or less for a recount in non-statewide races.

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.

Laura Lee

Laura Lee is the News Editor at Carolina Public Press. Contact her at llee@carolinapublicpress.org.

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