Three votes separated them in the Nov. 6 election, and now Michelle Berger and Hugh Harrington will duke it out again for a seat on the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners. On Dec. 19, the State Board of Elections voted unanimously to order a revote between the candidates. The decision came just one week after the Chatham County Board of Elections found "substantial evidence to believe that a violation of the election law or other irregularity or misconduct did occur and that it was sufficiently serious to cast doubt on the apparent results of the election."
Both the Chatham and State BOE determined that 17 Chatham County voters received incorrect ballots that may have allowed them to vote for town board, an election restricted to Pittsboro residents. Harrington won the election for the third open town board seat.
In a protest filed with the Chatham County BOE, Timothy Keim, who is Berger's partner, also alleged there was vote-buying in the form of free meals and rides to the polls in exchange for votes. He accused supporters of the opposing candidates, including longtime political operative Mary Nettles, of violating the 50-foot "no campaign" zone (see related story, Nov. 28, 2007).
The Chatham County BOE determined, by a 2-to-1 vote, that "campaigning occurred inside the 50-foot buffer area throughout the day." The state board did not address that finding.
"We got really what we wanted. We got a new election, and we got a new election that's fair this time. That's all we asked for," Keim said.
Jeffrey Starkweather, an attorney who represents Berger and Keim, said he had spoken with the state board to ensure it investigated other allegations of voter inducement, a felony.
"I think it's an important victory for fairness in elections," Starkweather said of last week's decision. "What puzzles me, to be honest, is why Mr. Harrington wouldn't be up there arguing for the same thing. This thing wasn't about him, or us—it was about voters having their votes count equally."
Harrington, who fought to dismiss Keim's protest at the Chatham County hearing, described the findings as "inconvenient."
"I wish somehow they could've just gotten those 17 votes figured out and be done with it. It's inconvenient to go to another vote. It's especially not something you want to think about over the holidays," Harrington told the Indy.
Berger said the revote would make the election more issue driven, and hoped Harrington would participate in debates, which she said he refused to do during the election.
Harrington said he never received an invitation from the League of Women Voters to debate Berger.
"I heard about it, and didn't even think I was invited," he said.
Vicki Boyer, president of the League of Women Voters of Orange, Chatham and Durham counties, said all the Pittsboro candidates were mailed an invitation to the candidates' forum. Only Mayor Randy Voller and three challengers comprising the Pittsboro Together slate—Berger, Jim Hinkley and Gary Dean Simpson—attended.
Asked if he would be willing to debate this time around, Harrington said, "I think that's reasonable—just have a meeting and answer questions, that'd be fine."
He said he had "no plans" of how to restart his campaign, other than putting his campaign poster up in his yard.
"A lot of that's going to depend on when [the election] is," he said.
Berger, meanwhile, said she was "thrilled" at the outcome.
"I think it will give the residents of Pittsboro a chance to participate in a more fairly run election. I get to go back and talk about the issues that are facing Pittsboro—water, sewer issues, our strategies for economic development."
The new election will take place no earlier than Feb. 12— 55 days from the Dec. 19 decision. Chatham County BOE Director Dawn Stumpf said a date has not been set; she estimated the cost of the revote to be from $1,500 to $2,000.