Interest in runoff election appears high

Jul. 15, 2014 @ 08:09 AM

Negative news reports about the two candidates in the runoff election in the district attorney's race may be one reason why turnout during early voting was higher than anticipated in Caldwell, Burke and Catawba counties, election officials said.

“I think people have just realized what a serious office this is,” said Debbie Mace, Burke County's director of elections. “I don’t think until all the stories came out on both candidates and all the chatter in the paper and radio, I don’t think people understood how important it is.”

Incumbent Jay Gaither, who has served as district attorney in the 25th Judicial District since 2002, is facing a tough challenge from David Learner, a lawyer in Burke County.

In the first primary on May 6, Learner secured the most votes, at 9,352, or 39.38 percent, 147 votes shy of the 40 percent he needed to avoid a runoff. Gaither finished second with 7,390 votes, or 31.12 percent. Scott Reilly, a lawyer in Catawba County, received 7,008 votes, or 29.51 percent.

In Caldwell County, 981 ballots were cast during the early voting period that ended Saturday. In Burke, 1,185 were cast and in Catawba 3,975 were cast, all higher than usual for a runoff in a primary, officials in each county's board of elections said.

Primary elections typically see low turnout, and because the runoffs often are alone on the ballot the turnout for them is usually even lower. Caldwell's most recent runoff, in 2012, had 726 ballots cast during early voting. Catawba's, also in 2012, had 2,506.

The negative news stories did not crop up until weeks after the May primary.

Gaither is being sued in U.S. District Court by a former assistant district attorney who accuses him of sexually harassing her, and the lawsuit included 35 pages of text messages she said Gaither sent. Gaither has called the lawsuit retaliation for his firing the woman, but he has refused to address the specific allegations.

Learner was involved five years ago in a company that the Federal Trade Commission ordered shut down as a pyramid scheme last year. Learner says the company appeared legitimate at the time he was involved, which he said lasted for less than a year.

Besides the news stories, both Gaither and Learner have been working actively to court voters, said Amanda Duncan, Catawba County's director of elections.

Sandy Rich, Caldwell County's director of elections, hopes the strong early voting numbers will translate into higher-than-usual voting today. The weather may be a factor -- there is a chance all day of isolated thunderstorms, with the strongest possibility from late morning through the afternoon.

Republican and unaffiliated voters can cast ballots in the runoff at their regular polling places 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. today. For more information, contact the Caldwell County Board of Elections at 828-757-1326.