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NC lawmaker in close primary files protest claiming voting issues

Cindy Hinkle reaches for a stack of ballots as election workers prepare to mail out absentee ballot requests at the Wake County Board of Elections office in Raleigh on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022.
Jonathon Gruenke
Cindy Hinkle reaches for a stack of ballots as election workers prepare to mail out absentee ballot requests at the Wake County Board of Elections office in Raleigh on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022.

A state lawmaker who appears to have lost last week's primary has filed protests of the election results.

The latest vote tally for a state House race in the Roanoke Rapids area shows that Rep. Michael Wray, D-Northampton, is behind by just 36 votes. If those results don't change, social studies teacher Rodney Pierce will have unseated the 10-term legislator.

Pierce ran against Wray because of concerns that the incumbent Democrat frequently votes with Republicans. Pierce points to Wray's support for the state budget bill as well as the rollback of some environmental regulations at the legislature last year.

Wray filed protests in Halifax, Warren and Northampton counties calling on officials there to investigate voting irregularities before the results are final. He said some voters were handed the wrong ballot — including Democrats who were given a Republican ballot. Others, he said, had their votes improperly thrown out due to machine counting errors or mistakes by election officials.

And he said a poll observer violated state law by handing out sample ballots promoting Pierce.

"Despite the fact that he was registered as a party observer, Mr. (Wendell) Hedgepeth was actively campaigning by handing out sample ballots instructing voters to cast their vote in this race for candidate Rodney Pierce," the protest form said. "We believe this had an impact on the results as Michael Wray only received 20 votes in this precinct."

Pierce issued a statement Friday accusing Wray of spreading conspiracy theories about the election process. Pierce and several other organizations, including the AFL-CIO and the N.C. League of Conservation Voters, are calling on the incumbent to concede.

"My opponent seems to want to change the rules more than a week after the contest ended, just because he lost," Pierce said in a news release Friday. "That is not how our elections and our democracy are supposed to work. In a time of a crisis of faith in our institutions, spreading conspiracy theories about our election process is wrong and it has real consequences."

The close race could also result in a recount. And with both candidates hiring lawyers to represent them in the election protest process, it could be weeks before the outcome of the primary is resolved.

There's no Republican candidate running in the House district, so the winner will automatically become the area's state representative.

Wray was one of several incumbent Democrats in the legislature who faced primary challenges over their moderate voting records. The results were mixed: Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, lost his race, while fellow incumbent Reps. Cecil Brockman and Shelly Willingham held onto their seats.

Other local elections remain unresolved. A candidate for the Rockingham County commission has requested a recount of last week's primary votes.

Republican Craig Travis finished just three votes behind incumbent County Commissioner Kevin Berger. Berger is the son of state Senate leader Phil Berger, and Travis campaigned against Berger's support for a casino in the area.

Recounts are also expected in a Cumberland County commission and a Northampton County school board race.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.