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Wednesday, 23 November 2011 14:05

Election protest by Waynesville mayor candidate gets denied

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A challenger for the mayor’s seat in Waynesville protested the election results this week, claiming residents of a new apartment complex were disenfranchised.

A mapping error caused temporary confusion on Election Day over whether residents of the apartment complex were eligible to vote in the town election.

Hugh Phillips, who lost his bid for mayor by 31 votes, filed a formal protest with the Haywood County Board of Elections calling for a special election that would give 81 registered voters living in The Laurels at Junaluska a second chance to cast ballots.

The protest was denied, however, after the election board ruled that there was no evidence any voter was turned away from the polls or prevented from casting ballots.

“I can’t find that we denied anybody the right to vote,” said Grover Bradshaw, a member of the Haywood Election Board.

Phillips plans to appeal to the N.C. Board of Elections.

Phillips was joined in the protest by a resident of the apartment complex, Ed Henderson, who ultimately voted in the election but not without some hang-up. Henderson went to the polls the morning of Election Day and popped his head in to ask whether his name was on the roster as being eligible to vote in the town election.

“I didn’t think I was in the city, but I wanted to make sure. They could not find me so I simply said ‘thank you’ and turned and left. I didn’t fuss or protest because I thought they very well might be correct,” Henderson said.

The Laurels at Junaluska is on the outskirts of town. The apartment complex for elderly and disabled residents was built in 2007. It’s located near the Junaluska Golf Course, off of Russ Avenue past K-Mart. This was the first town election since the complex opened.

Because of a mapping error, it didn’t show up in the election database as being inside the town limits.

Once back at his apartment complex, however, Henderson decided to double-check with the apartment manager to determine if they were in the town limits, he said.

“I have been a voter all my life. I have never missed an election,” Henderson said.

When he learned they in fact were in the town limits, he called the county election office, which put him on hold to figure out what had gone wrong.

Henderson said county election workers were “profusely apologetic.”

“They said if you will please go back down to the precinct we will make sure your vote is taken. They were very concerned that I have that opportunity,” Henderson said. “I certainly don’t perceive this as being a deliberate act. It was a clerical error.”

Meanwhile, a couple who lives in the apartment complex had also come to the polls to vote, but unlike Henderson who informally popped his head to see if his name was on the roster, they officially presented themselves to vote. Precinct workers couldn’t find their name on the list.

In practice, the couple should have gotten special paper ballots. Known as provisional ballots, they would have been set aside and dealt with after the polls closed.

Poll workers are given marching orders that no one leaves without voting, according to O.L. Yates, chairman of the Haywood election board.

“Everybody that comes in, if we can’t find them, we give them a provisional vote,” Yates said. Election workers later research whether the voter is indeed eligible, and if so, the “provisional ballots” are tallied into the results.

In this case, however, the couple became angry when their name wasn’t on the voting roster and left before poll workers could offer them provisional ballots, said Robert Inman, the Haywood County election director.

“(She) was upset and decided to leave before there was an exchange of communication that would have led to her casting a provisional ballot,” Inman said.

Even though the couple left, the poll workers called the county election office and reported the incident. They researched the couple’s name and address and discovered the mapping error. The couple was contacted and asked to come back in and vote, which they did.

The mapping error was fixed and all residents of the apartment complex were added to the voting roster by 10:45 a.m. on Election Day. Both Henderson and the couple who were initially told they weren’t on the roster came back in and voted. Ultimately, nine residents of The Laurels at Junaluska voted in the election.

“If you had been denied your right to vote we would have a problem with it because we don’t want to deny anybody the right to vote,” Yates told Henderson at a hearing on his election protest Monday, Nov. 21.

Henderson agreed there is no way of knowing whether anyone tried to vote and couldn’t, especially since the error was fixed by mid-morning.

Yet Henderson believes that everyone who lives at The Laurels was disenfranchised from the outset — simply by not knowing whether they were in the town limits in the first place.

“They had no idea they were eligible for this election,” Henderson said.

Anyone in the apartment complex who had registered to vote in the past four years had been issued incorrect voter registration cards that failed to include they are eligible to vote in town elections. Phillips questioned whether voters may have called the election office in advance of the election to see if they were eligible to vote, and being told no, never bothered to come to the polls in order to cast a provisional ballot.

Inman said that while the mapping error is regrettable and being taken seriously, the election board isn’t responsible for making sure people know whether they reside in the town limits.

Henderson pointed out that in such a close election — only a 31-vote spread between Mayor Gavin Brown and Phillips — the voters in the apartment complex could have swung the election had they voted. Only nine of the 90 registered voters in the apartment complex cast ballots.

“The 81 votes that were not cast could potentially effect the outcome for mayor,” Henderson said.

“We can’t be responsible for the ‘what if’s’ if they did and ‘what if’s’ if they didn’t,” Yates replied. “We can’t be responsible for the 81 people who didn’t vote.”

That’s the whole point of provisional ballots, Yates said. Anyone who shows up to vote gets to do so, even if they have to fill out a paper ballot and have it verified later.

“If they had gone by their precinct, they would have gotten a provisional ballot,” Yates said.

Besides, the only remedy would be to hold an entirely new election. It would be illegal to hold a special second election for a select group of residents in the apartment complex, said Chip Killian, the attorney for the county election board.

Holding a new election for the whole town would cost $10,000 to $15,000 dollars, Yates said.

Hugh Phillips said he doesn’t want to cost the county the money of holding a second election but doesn’t think it is fair that people were led to believe they weren’t in the town limits and that they may have voted otherwise.

“I hold the Town of Waynesville and Haywood County responsible for this snafu,” Phillips wrote in his election protest. “Someone in the town or county should have made known to the Board of Elections that these residents were citizens of the town and had the right to vote.”

Phillips said he got a list of registered voters from the election board when campaigning, and that list didn’t include The Laurels at Junaluska. As a result, he didn’t reach out to them with his candidate message.

Henderson made it clear in his protest that he wasn’t happy with the election outcome. He wanted Phillips to win.

But he says even if Phillips had won, he still would have filed his election protest on principle.

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