Republican Paul Newby's narrow lead over Democratic incumbent Cheri Beasley changed little overall as a statewide machine recount of North Carolina's very close race for Supreme Court chief justice was finally completed late Wednesday.
The 401-vote lead for Newby won't signal an official winner for now, however. Beasley's campaign said it immediately asked the State Board of Elections for a hand recount of a small portion of ballots statewide, as she is allowed to receive. But the state Republican Party contends it's clear that Newby will be next chief justice.
The latest count was finished more than two weeks after Beasley initially requested the recount after all 100 counties had finalized their totals for Nov. 3 races. Newby was up by 406 votes from nearly 5.4 million ballots cast for the race when Beasley asked for the machine recount, in which the ballots were run through tabulators.
Both Beasley and Newby, the court's senior associate justice, also have pending formal protests about the counting or rejection of thousands of specific absentee ballots by county elections boards. Hearings on those could go well into December.
Under state rules, the partial hand-to-eye recount would apply to ballots in 3% of the voting sites in each county, chosen at random. A statewide hand recount would then be ordered if the sample results differ enough from the machine recount to the point that the result would be reversed if the difference was extrapolated to all ballots.
"We are grateful for the diligent work being carried out across the state by our Board of Elections officials and volunteers to ensure that every North Carolina voter is heard," Beasley campaign attorney Bruce Thompson said in a news release announcing the hand recount request.
Nearly all of the counties had completed machine tabulations before Thanksgiving, but Mecklenburg, Guilford and Forsyth counties stretched their tallies into this week and counting in Forsyth County slowed before officials there uploaded their recount totals after 9:30 p.m.
State GOP Chairman Michael Whatley tweeted after the machine recount’s completion that it’s time for Beasley "to acknowledge that she has lost this race and concede gracefully."
The results for all other statewide and regional elections Nov. 3 were certified last week by the State Board of Elections.
A Newby victory would give Republicans three of the seven seats on the state's highest court. Democrats have held six of the seven seats for almost two years. Gov. Roy Cooper elevated Beasley to chief justice in early 2019, making her the first Black woman to serve at that post.
Republicans already won two Supreme Court elections from November, including one for the associate justice seat that Newby currently holds.
The chief justice is the head of the state judicial system. The person also is charged in part with choosing the panels of three trial judges who initally rule on constitutional challenges to state laws.
The state Supreme Court is likely in the next two years to consider redistricting, voter ID and school voucher cases.