Drew Laughlin is leading the race to be Hilton Head Island's new mayor according to unofficial results, but voters will have to wait until Thursday to know definitively if he will lead the island for the next four years.
With 31 of 33 precincts reporting, Laughlin, a sitting Town Council member, leads local architect Tom Crews by a slim margin of 223 votes.
County election officials still have to count provisional and fail-safe ballots, which will not happen until a canvass hearing to certify results at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Beaufort County Board of Elections and Registration office, 15 John Galt Road in Beaufort, said Scott Marshall, county elections director.
Marshall, however, said he did not anticipate there would be enough uncounted ballots to affect the outcome.
"I don't know how many provisional ballots there are. I anticipate a dozen or less," Marshall said. "I don't think it will be enough to make a difference. We can't assume every one of them will be counted, either."
Neither candidate was willing to declare victory late Tuesday.
"We're not sure what the heck is going on here. We haven't seen this sort of thing ever," Crews said. "I don't want to say anything definitive until the results have been certified."
Laughlin was guarded in his comments as well.
He said he expected a close race.
Both men ran similar campaigns calling for changes in the town's land-use regulations and zoning ordinances they say restrict commercial development.
Both also campaigned on pledges to make town government friendlier to business and to make economic development a top priority, on par with the town's commitment to environmental protection.
"You had two very similar candidates," Laughlin said. "It doesn't surprise me that the vote would be close. I think voters were approving of those policy objectives. But I would have told you that a week ago. You had two campaigns that worked very hard ... you end up with a close result."
Provisional ballots are cast when a person's voter eligibility is in question. Specifically, the ballots are used when: The voter's name does not appear in the poll book for a given precinct; the voter does not have proper identification; or their right to vote is otherwise challenged.
Provisional ballots are sealed and separated from regular ballots.
The county election board then weighs the circumstances and votes whether to accept each one. Ballots that are accepted are then unsealed, put in a pile, shuffled and added to the total number of votes, Marshall said.
Fail-safe ballots are issued when a voter's right to vote is not in question. In this case, the voter has moved, he said.
Crews and Laughlin were winnowed from a pack of seven candidates in the Nov. 2 general election.
Should results hold, Laughlin, an attorney, would be sworn in Dec. 7 and replace Tom Peeples, who did not seek re-election after 15 years. Peeples endorsed Laughlin days before the general election.
A special election would be held March 8 to fill the remainder of Laughlin's council term, which expires in December 2012. Candidate filing for the seat would begin at noon Dec. 24 and end at noon Jan. 3, Marshall said.
Laughlin's Ward 3 seat covers these communities: Spanish Wells, Wexford, Long Cove Club, Indigo Run, Point Comfort and Shipyard.