Judge tosses out 300 absentee Lincoln ballots

By Harmon Marks | Aug 18, 2010

HAMLIN -- Incumbent Circuit Court Clerk Charles Brumfield will be in the Nov. 2 general election ballot in Lincoln County after Raleigh Circuit Judge H.R. Kirkpatrick ruled that more than 300 absentee ballots be thrown out.

Brumfield and County Commission candidate Phoebe Harless contested certified results of Lincoln County's May 11 democratic primary election, contending that there were 619 early voting absentee ballots that should not have been counted.

Brumfield and Harless were ahead after the ballots that were cast on May 11 were counted, but reportedly lost because of the 619 early voter absentee ballots were added, which were in favor of Brumfield's challenger, Jerry Bowman, and incumbent county commissioner, Thomas Ramey Jr.

After Lincoln Circuit Judge Jay M. Hoke recused himself from the case, it was moved to Raleigh Circuit Court.

On Aug. 16, Kirkpatrick ruled in a court proceeding that 309 absentee ballots for Bowman be disallowed, thus making Brumfield a candidate for re-election. Counsel for Bowman, Mike Carey, made it known the sheriff will not be able to continue financing his defense to challenge the contested absentee ballot total. Brumfield's attorney, Harvey Peyton, said an inordinate number of absentee ballot applications contained irregularities.

As to Harless' challenge, Kirkpatrick ruled it moot because County Commissioner Charles Vance resided in Duval Magisterial District, where Harless now lives, when he was elected. Although Vance has been quoted that he lives in Laurel Hill District, there was a State Supreme Court ruling enabling a commissioner to serve the duration of his term from whatever district he was elected.

Vance and State Senator Ron Stollings supported allegations by Brumfield and Harless that election irregularities were associated with absentee ballots. Peyton earlier elaborated that "...there were 800 applications for absentee ballots and 619 were actually cast. Historically, there have been 100 or 150 absentee ballots cast in elections. Then, all of a sudden, in one primary, over 600 absentee ballots are cast, and 90 percent of them go to candidates on a particular slate, one of whom is a county clerk in charge of challenging (questionable) ballots. That is statistically significant."

Secretary of State Natalie E. Tennant said her staff is ready to work with state lawmakers to clear up the section of state code that deals with absentee voting.

"There are sections of the code that are open to interpretation, and my office has always been open to discussing code and working with state lawmakers to make changes if change is needed," Tennant said.

Tennant said that during the 2010 primary election, 54 of the state's 55 counties had no problems with absentee ballot applications or absentee voting.

"In the past 12 years there have been minimal changes made to the absentee ballot application," she said. "The wording used on the absentee ballot application is taken directly from state code. The code is very clear on what must be included on the absentee ballot application, including what reasons can be given for absentee voting and who must sign the absentee ballot application."

Tennant also said she would like to meet with Kirkpatrick to discuss the sections of code that he felt were ambiguous and hear his suggestions on how to make the absentee voting process better. She also plans on forming a blue ribbon panel of election experts to take a close look at entire chapter of state code that deals with elections.

Tennant pointed out that there are several sections of code that conflict or that may lend themselves to conflicting interpretations.

"The elections code needs to be closely examined," Tennant said. "The people of Lincoln County deserve it, and the people of West Virginia deserve it."

Tennant also said more training on absentee voting rules could also be part of the solution.

Editor's Note: Kyla Asbury contributed to this report.

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