Following nearly two months of court fights and wrangling over lost votes, the North Carolina Board of Elections on Wednesday ordered a new statewide election for the closely contested race for agriculture commissioner.

Republican Steve Troxler (search) leads Democratic incumbent Britt Cobb (search) by 2,287 votes in final results from the Nov. 2 election. However, that figure was left in doubt by the discovery that an electronic voting machine error in Carteret County (search) eliminated 4,438 votes that were cast early.

No date was set for the new election, which could occur in mid-March at the earliest and cost $3.5 million. Turnout is expected to be low, maybe less than 10 percent of the more than 3.3 million votes cast in November.

The board on Nov. 30 had called for an unusual special election limited to Carteret County to get a new final statewide result, but a judge threw out that plan and told the board to come up with a new solution.

The board voted 3-2 Wednesday to amend its earlier order, with the board's three Democrats voting in the majority.

Attorneys for Cobb argued that state law required a statewide election because the number of missing ballots exceeds the margin between the two candidates.

Troxler wanted only the displaced voters in Carteret County to have a chance to cast new ballots. Republicans argue that Cobb probably couldn't overtake Troxler if only 4,438 voters in the Republican-leaning county were asked to cast ballots again.

Troxler said he would probably appeal the board's decision.

"This is pluperfect nonsense," said his attorney, Marshall Hurley.

An order for a new election normally requires four votes, but board chairman Larry Leake and his fellow Democrats decided they weren't ordering a new election, only amending their earlier order, which required only a simple majority. Troxler characterized the move as a partisan trick.

The board could also have declared Troxler the winner, without any revote.