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N.C. Appeals Court Runoff Heads for Recount

By Bryan Warner

RALEIGH - More than a month after voting ended in North Carolina, the only statewide race still without a winner is headed for a recount.

With all counties reporting, former Judge Doug McCullough leads Judge Cressie Thigpen by about 6,000 votes in the runoff election to fill a seat on the N.C. Court of Appeals vacated by Judge Jim Wynn, who joined the federal appellate court in August.

Doug McCullough and Cressie Thigpen

Former Judge Doug McCullough (left) leads Judge Cressie Thigpen after runoff votes were tallied. Thigpen has called for a recount.

First-round results (*top two advance to runoff):

Cressie Thigpen395,220 20.33%*
Doug McCullough 295,619 15.21%*
Chris Dillon 201,870 10.39%
Anne Middleton 174,556 8.98%
Daniel E. Garner 153,971 7.92%
Jewel Ann Farlow 151,747 7.81%
Harry E. Payne 99,2575.11%
Stan Hammer 96,451 4.96%
Mark E. Klass 90,526 4.66%
Pamela M. Vesper 90,116 4.64%
John F. Bloss 78,857 4.06%
John Sullivan 69,971 3.60%
J. Wesley Casteen 45,610 2.35%

Runoff results comprised of second- or third-place votes added to first-round total:

Thigpen: 536,996
margin: 5,988

Source: N.C. State Board of Elections - unofficial results

Thigpen is requesting a recount, as permitted under state law with less than a 1 percent margin separating the two candidates. According to the State Board of Elections, a recount in the race would take one or two days.

Due to the timing of Wynn’s vacancy, a primary election could not be held for the race.  Instead, all 13 candidates who filed for the seat faced off in the November general election.  The contest served as the first statewide use of “instant runoff voting” in North Carolina or anywhere else in the nation. 

Under the instant runoff voting system, voters were asked to rank their top three choices, in order of preference.  Since no candidate received 50 percent of the first-place votes, Thigpen and McCullough advanced to a runoff, with Thigpen leading McCullough by just under 100,000 votes. 

In the runoff, county board of elections officials examined ballots that had ranked one of the 11 eliminated candidates as first to see which of the remaining two candidates they ranked as second or third, if at all.

The second- or third-place votes were added to the respective candidates' first-round count, moving McCullough ahead of Thigpen by about 6,000 votes.

While the race utilized an unfamiliar system of voting, voter drop off was less steep in this contest than other N.C. Appeals Court races in 2010 or 2008.  Among the more than 2.6 million votes cast in the 2010 election, 72 percent included at least a first-place choice in this instant runoff contest, according to data from the State Board of Elections.

Of the 1.9 million ballots cast in the race, 56 percent included a first-, second- or third-place vote for either McCullough or Thigpen.  About 30 percent of votes cast in the race selected the apparent winner, McCullough, as either a first, second or third choice.

Although judicial elections are nonpartisan in North Carolina, the state’s political parties weighed in on the contest.  The N.C. Republican Party endorsed McCullough, while Thigpen was favored by the state Democratic Party.

Thigpen was appointed to fill the vacant Wynn seat by Gov. Bev Perdue in August. He previously served as a superior court judge.

If McCullough is certified as the winner, it would mark his return to the N.C. Court of Appeals after losing a reelection bid to Judge Cheri Beasley in 2008.

Perdue will have the opportunity to fill another vacant seat left on the N.C. Court of Appeals by Judge Barbara Jackson, who last month won a seat on the N.C. Supreme Court. That appointee would face election in 2012.