By Colin Campbell

The State Board of Elections voted 3-2 along party lines Wednesday to order a machine recount of 90,000 votes in Durham County, backing a request from Republicans and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory's campaign.

The three Republicans on the board voted for the recount, saying that the late addition of the 90,000 votes to the statewide tally on election night constituted an "irregularity." The two Democrats on the board opposed the recount, arguing that no evidence suggested any mistakes in counting Durham votes.

"What harm would it do to scan these votes and count them?" said board member and retired Judge James Baker, a Republican. "It's not likely to change anything. There was enough of an irregularity to make people wonder."

The roughly 90,000 votes under scrutiny in Durham were added to the statewide tally around 11:30 p.m. on election night. McCrory, who is seeking a second term, appeared to be leading statewide until those votes were added to the total; Democrat Roy Cooper, North Carolina's attorney general, has been leading in the count ever since.

Baker said the late shift could have reminded voters of fraudulent elections in which corrupt officials added to the vote count if their candidate was behind. He said that practice was once common in Madison County, a rural county near Asheville where he lives.

"I'm not saying that's what happened here," Baker said. "I personally don't have any reason to doubt that any information entered was correct."

Another Republican board member, Rhonda Amoroso of Wilmington, cited past election problems and staffing changes in Durham County as one reason to hold a recount. "I think right now we have a taint," she said.

McCrory's campaign said he won't seek a statewide recount if the Durham votes are recounted. Election officials there said the recount would take about eight hours, so it's possible the governor's race could be settled by the end of the week.

In the latest numbers on Wednesday, Cooper's lead was above 10,000 votes for the first time as the final counties were finishing counting absentee and provisional ballots. Several more counties are expected to finish their tallies by the end of the week; McCrory isn't eligible for a statewide recount unless the margin is less than 10,000.

Republicans initially wanted the Durham ballots recounted by hand, although they later said a machine recount would be sufficient. The Durham County Board of Elections, which like all county election boards is controlled by Republicans, had rejected the request, saying there was no evidence of irregularities or misconduct.

The two Democrats on the State Board of Elections said overturning Durham's decision was a mistake and sets a bad precedent for future election complaints.

"I think it's a travesty that we're going to interpret what happened in Durham County as an irregularity," said board member Joshua Malcolm of Lumberton, who opposed the recount. "Anyone who looked at the data (showing a McCrory lead early on election night) knew that all the votes in Durham County were not in yet."

The delay came because election workers entered information from ballot tabulators' paper tapes after they were unable to read data from six memory cards that also came from the tabulators.

Election software couldn't aggregate data from five of the cards because the number of votes per race exceeded the software's memory limitation. A sixth card may have had a battery problem. Experts on the equipment told Durham officials that the paper tapes are reliable, but the GOP wants to double-check.

When elections officials read off and calculated numbers from paper tapes, observers from both political parties watched the proceedings. "The county should be applauded for what they did, not attacked," said Kevin Hamilton, an attorney representing Cooper and the N.C. Democratic Party. "This is what's best in our election system."

But Republicans said the situation was unusual and merits a recount to catch any mistakes.

"The easiest thing to do is simply to count or retabulate the votes," said Tom Stark, who filed the recount request and serves as attorney for the N.C. Republican Party. "I can't understand why the (Roy) Cooper campaign has been so opposed."

Hamilton said Stark failed to show any evidence that mistakes were made _ a legal requirement for a recount.

"Mere suspicion, or reasonable suspicion, is not enough," Hamilton said. "Uncertainty is not enough. ... The law isn't 'gee, I'm a disappointed losing candidate in the election, I can ask for a recount just to see.'"

The State Board of Elections' staff attorney, Josh Lawson, cautioned the board that it needed to include "findings of fact and conclusions of law" in its order approving the Republican protest. Baker responded by citing concerns that "the perception by the public is that it was a mammoth problem" in Durham.

N.C. Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse praised the board's decision. "Today is a great day for democracy in North Carolina," he told reporters after the meeting. "We believe this will help us to conclude the process in a very short amount of time. The voters of North Carolina now have an opportunity to have full and complete confidence in the results that came out of Durham County."

Cooper's campaign criticized the recount as a waste of money. "We are confident that this recount will confirm Roy Cooper's election as governor of North Carolina," campaign manager Trey Nix said in a news release. "It is wrong that Gov. McCrory continues to waste taxpayer money with false accusations and attempts to delay and that the Republican-controlled Board of Elections did not follow the law."

(c)2016 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)