BRUNSWICK COUNTY — The City of Southport will have a new mayor according to the results of Brunswick County’s election canvass on Friday.
The Brunswick County Board of Elections convened to certify the results of Nov. 4’s municipal elections. After counting the remaining absentee and provisional ballots, current Southport Alderman Rich Alt has come out on top in the Southport mayoral race by one vote over incumbent Joe Pat Hatem, Southport’s mayor since 2019. Before canvassing, Hatem was in the lead with 833 votes over Alt’s 830.
There are also two tied races. A Bald Head Island village council seat is up for grabs between Jerry Maggio and Virginia “Ginnie” White.
The Ocean Isle Beach commissioner race also has a tie between David Green and Stephen Turner, though neither beat out the top two candidates Mike Wade and Mark Holland.
According to elections director Sara LaVere, the result of those races will be determined by some sort of random choice method. Candidates are entitled to a recount in both races.
As for the city of Northwest, the results show write-in candidate Sheila Grady, currently the town’s mayor pro tempore, has won with 64% of the vote over incumbent James Knox.
“Am I happy? I am,” Alt said to Port City Daily about leading the Southport mayoral race. “But realistically, there’s going to be a recount with one vote. Who knows how that’s gonna turn out? So there’s just no time to go running around and firing fireworks or anything like that.”
According to state law, a candidate can demand a recount if the difference in votes is not more than 1% of the total votes, in this case 17 votes, cast in the ballot item. The demand must be made in writing and received by the board of elections by 5 p.m. on the first business day after the canvass, which would be Monday, Nov. 20.
Hatem wrote a letter requesting a recount before leaving the canvass meeting Friday. The mayor said he expected to be down by 10 votes after the canvass due to Alt’s popularity on Election Day.
He also said he hoped “Southport will remember this and get out, for every election, but especially in two years when we have our municipal election.”
Hatem attributed the close race to an influx of newcomers in Southport and also the unprecedented competition between a sitting mayor and an alderman. He pointed out the candidates could not be more different, demonstrating a divide in the town.
“We ran a very positive campaign,” Hatem said. “That’s what people don’t want anymore. I did not mention any opponents in any of my ads or on Facebook, yet every week, I was in some way attacked negatively and it may have been a cumulative effect in this case.”
Alt has made numerous Facebook posts speaking out during the race, particularly regarding a recent suspension of Southport employees.
In the days leading up to the election, Randy Jones and Sydney Heil, in community relations, and Kate Marshall, of animal protective services, were suspended without pay for undisclosed reasons, though city manager Bonnie Therrien said an outside investigation would be launched.
Both the mayor and city manager declined to provide further details in PCD’s past coverage. Alt also did not respond to PCD requests for comment on the issue, but he took to his campaign’s Facebook page to address the situation.
“Rich Alt had absolutely nothing to do with the investigation of the 3 city employees who have been suspended without pay,” he wrote in a post. “I learned about the event the same way all the elected officials did, from a heads-up call from the City Manager.”
He said the city manager told him some personal information was collected on him, but he didn’t know further details on why or who was involved in obtaining information. He reported elected officials were told to stay out of the investigation but accused Hatem of crossing the line in that regard.
“I know the comments made by Mr. Hatem clearly had the effect of questioning the decision-making of our seasoned City Manager and professional Human Resource Director,” Alt wrote. “Those comments have brought about all matter of conspiracy theories and some sort of inquisition theories upon the employees.”
It was unclear what comments Alt was referring to, but Hatem was quoted in the State Port Pilot commenting on the suspended employees.
“From my vantage point as mayor, these people have done an outstanding job for the city, and hopefully it will work its way out to a successful resolution that is fair and equitable and I look forward to hopefully working with these individuals in the future because they are vital employees to our city and have a great deal of institutional knowledge and have been a part of our community for many years,” Hatem said.
On Friday, Alt said there was no way to know if that situation affected the election.
“Whoever comes out at the end is going to have to try to make amends with the other half of the city because we can’t have a divided city like that,” Alt said.
The recount will not occur until after Thanksgiving due to board members’ schedules around the holiday.
Ballot discrepancies, election integrity
At Friday’s meeting, the board of elections reviewed two outstanding absentee ballots to determine the validity of the postage. The two absentee ballots were cast in Bald Head Island. It was unclear whether the ballots, from a husband and wife, were marked with official USPS postage, though the purchaser provided receipt from the local post office demonstrating validity. The ballots were unanimously accepted.
It also looked closer at seven provisional ballots, almost all related to voter ID issues. Board of elections staff recommended rejecting four provisional ballots due to the voter not providing ID at the polling place.
After a series of court challenges and judge injunctions, the voter ID law passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2018 was allowed to take effect this year. A new Republican majority on the state Supreme Court overruled the previous court’s decision to block the law.
Thus, voters were required to show a valid form of photo identification on Nov. 4.; however, voters without one were allowed to cast a provisional ballot and given until 5 p.m. on Nov. 16 to provide an ID to the board of elections. The Brunswick County Board of Elections unanimously rejected the four ballots due to no ID provided by the deadline.
Another two provisional ballots were unanimously rejected; both provided invalid forms of ID. When told they could not be accepted, each filled out an exception form, which allows voters to explain impediments to obtaining an ID for board of elections review.
One person presented an ID from the Library of Congress, which is not a form of acceptable ID options, and the other tried to use an out-of-state driver’s license, which can only be accepted if the voter moved to a new address within 90 days of casting a ballot. Board of elections staff explained the voter was registered in Brunswick County in October 2020.
Both voters were notified that their exception forms would go before the board for approval Friday; neither showed up to explain their case.
The sole provisional ballot approved by the board was tagged for an address discrepancy. The address on record, in the unincorporated Compass Pointe neighborhood outside Leland, technically did not exist in Compass Point anymore due to changes within the neighborhood and USPS’s system.
“Being a resident of Compass Pointe myself, I’ve had like 14 different addresses,” Democratic board member Paula Clarity said at the canvass.
Republican board member Timothy Randall said the vote seemed valid to him and the voter should be given the “benefit of the doubt.” The ballot received unanimous approval.
In an effort to provide transparency to the voting process, LaVere gave a voter history summary at the canvass. Out of 12,682 ballots cast, there were three incidents where voters that were issued a ballot did not cast the ballot, creating an imbalance in votes cast and ballots issued.
LaVere explained in the Belville 2 precinct, a voter was given a ballot, but because of an address change, it was in the wrong precinct. When the voter saw a different candidate slate than expected, the poll workers directed him to his correct precinct, where the man ultimately cast his ballot.
LaVere admitted this was not policy — the man should have cast his ballot at the original precinct. Though that ballot was canceled, the discrepancy in voter history will remain on the record.
The other two incidents occurred in the Brunswick Forest and Southport 2 precincts. The Southport voter threw away the ballot before casting it; staff surmised the Brunswick Forestvoter walked out without putting the ballot in the scanner.
Republican board member Randy Pelton thanked LaVere for her hard work on ballot tracking.
“It’s critical to ensure the integrity of your election and I’m sure you understand that there’s always been issues around balancing, whether or not you have more ballots than you had voters,” he said. “So that’s why the staff here does a Herculean job of trying to balance those out. Sarah makes it sound pretty straightforward, but it is a huge job.”
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org