This article was updated on Dec. 9 with updated information about the election protest process.

Mary Beth Murphy is one step closer to becoming the Guilford County commissioner for District 4. On Tuesday afternoon, incumbent Republican Alan Branson lost a preliminary protest hearing for results in the District 4 county commission race against Murphy. Currently, Murphy leads Branson by 72 votes.

During Tuesday’s board of elections meeting, members voted 3-2 to dismiss Branson’s protest with the Democratic members voting in favor of dismissal. While Tuesday’s decision by the board puts Murphy in a stronger position to take the seat, Branson said he plans to file an appeal with the State Board of Elections.

“Fair and due process is what I am asking for on questionable absentee mail in ballots received after November 3 with various questions,” he said.

The last time a similar situation happened was in 2004 between Republican incumbent Trudy Wade and her Democratic challenger John Parks in an earlier county commission race.

In the 2004 election, Parks came out ahead by 89 votes after a recount of provisional ballots by the Guilford County Board of Elections. Wade refused to concede and appealed to the State Board of Elections and then the state Supreme Court when the state elections board declared Parks the winner. It wasn’t until a year and half after the election that Parks was finally able to take his seat on the county commission after the court ruled in Parks’ favor. The delay made the Guilford County Commission race the longest undecided race from the 2004 election.

On election night in 2020, Murphy led Branson by 18 votes in the District 4 race. After counting absentee ballots that came in through Nov. 12 and a subsequent recount, Murphy’s lead over Branson increased to 72 votes.

On Nov. 20, Branson filed a separate challenge to the election in which he alleged that 464 absentee ballots had irregularities and “lacked sufficient information to identity witness” but the State Board of Elections declined to hear the challenge because it was submitted after the deadline, according to reporting by the News & Record.

On Dec. 3, Branson filed a protest with the Guilford County Board of Elections.

In a statement by the board of elections from Dec. 4, Guilford County Elections Director Charlie Collicutt stated the following: “Protests are not common, but we do see them in close elections.”

Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne said that because Branson filed a protest, the results of the race cannot be certified until the protest is resolved and that a candidate cannot take office until the election is certified.

According to the North Carolina State Board of Elections election protest guide, Branson may now appeal the county’s decision to the state board. Then, the state board can make its decision based on existing information provided by Branson or it may request supplemental information from the county.

“Frivolous or improperly filed election protests may be administratively dismissed by the executive director pursuant,” the guide states. “If, after two calendar days of the executive director’s administrative  dismissal  recommendation, no State Board member interposes an  objection, the protest appeal will be dismissed.”

If the State Board of Elections dismisses Branson’s appeal, he may then appeal to the Superior Court of Wake County within 10 days of the State Board’s decision, according to the rules.

In previous interviews with TCB, Collicutt expressed confidence in the absentee vote-by-mail process.

“This is a good way to vote,” he said. “We count these ballots and do it in a transparent way. There is a one-to-one ratio. I’m not worried about our office being flooded by fraudulent ballots.”

Murphy said that she was confident that the results would not change.

“At every turn in this process, we have seen that the people of District 4 have chosen new leadership,” Murphy wrote. “We were ahead on election night, at the end of the canvass and following the recount, which netted us two additional votes. I am confident that the work of our local board of elections followed the directions of the state board and that every ballot being contested by Mr. Branson was rightfully counted according to the law.”

Murphy went on to say she has hired a lawyer to make sure that every vote gets counted properly and that she looks forward to serving on the county commission.

“I am grateful for the tireless effort of the Guilford County Board of Elections to administer this election with the utmost integrity,” she said. “I look forward to serving my District 4 constituents on the county commission.”

Murphy’s win would increase the board’s new Democratic majority from 6-4 to 7-3.

On Monday, Democrats Carly Cooke who won Jeff Phillips’ District 5 seat and James Upchurch who won Hank Henning’s District 6 seat, were sworn in during the county commissioners meeting.

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