MASON — The first meeting of the new administration for the Town of Mason was held over a week ago, but that doesn’t mean results of the June 11 municipal election are acceptable to one candidate.
Mayoral candidate Heath Engle has taken the next step beyond the recount, which was recently completed, to contest the legality of the election.
In a letter dated July 4, Engle listed five reasons for the election contest, including alleged improper filing deadlines, canvassing violations, mishandled ballots, being misled by the town attorney, and voter suppression.
The matter will now go before the town council in a hearing. According to Donald Kersey, general counsel with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, the council has many choices, from agreeing that the election process was followed according to West Virginia State Code, all the way to throwing out the results of the mayor’s race and having a new election for that position only.
Kersey said if Engle is not satisfied with the outcome of council’s final order, he can appeal the order within 30 days to the circuit court.
The apparent winner of the mayor’s race, Incumbent Donna Dennis, has 10 days to respond to Engle’s alleged violations. She said Tuesday that she will present a letter to council members, stating her opponent’s points were not accurate.
“I do not believe what he wrote is true,” she said.
Dennis stated what was done for one candidate in the election, was done the same for all. She said there was nothing fraudulent or malicious done against any candidate.
Kersey said the council has up to three months from the date of the election, which would be Sept. 11, to hold the hearing, but added it is “common to occur sooner.” Dennis said she is expecting the council to hear the matter next week when Christy McDonald, who was recorder at the time of the election, canvass and recount, returns from vacation.
Kersey also pointed out differences between the election contest and the recount that was held at Engle’s request. In the recount, Engle was responsible for all costs incurred if the results did not change. In the election contest, each party pays his or her own costs, with no cost being incurred by the municipality. In the matter of one of the council members being a relative of Engle’s, there is no conflict of interest in the West Virginia Code, according to Kersey. Unless the town charter has a conflict of interest section, or there is an ordinance, that council member can vote at the hearing.
An expansion of Engle’s allegations include:
Improper filing deadline for candidates as stated in the town election ordinance resolution of 1998: The resolution states candidates will be required to file a non-partisan certificate of announcement with the recorder from 12 to 15 weeks prior to an election. With an election date of June 11, the period should have been from Feb. 26 to March 19, not Jan. 14 to 28.
Violation of state election code during canvassing of votes: Did not follow municipal canvassing manual, more specifically, did not count the number of ballots and the resealed envelope of ballots was not written on by each member of the board.
Evidence of criminal offense: The number of ballots cast at the election per poll worker tally was 134, with Engle receiving 65, and Dennis 67, and two additional provisional ballots to be determined. There was no tally completed at the canvass, provisional ballots were mishandled, and the necessary measures were not taken at that time to secure ballots from the vulnerability of tampering. At the recount, 136 ballots were tallied twice, Engle 66 and Dennis 69, and one additional ballot which was deemed unmarked for the position of mayor by the recount authority. After the results were certified, it was discovered that 135 voters had cast their vote in the election.
Candidate misled by town attorney at recount: Immediately prior to recount, said legal representative introduced himself, stated he had previously not attended, nor represented, a client under these conditions and the experience was new and original. He then proceeded to read to the candidate from the WV Municipal Recounts Guide, page 7, “Conducting the Recount,” in which he stated verbatim the first five paragraphs of the document. He then mentioned the lack of a projector, and proceeded to incorrectly explain that the role of the candidate in this process was only to observe, not to contest, the individual ballots during the recount, and instead to document discrepancies and make appropriate notation during the contesting of the election. The recount then began and the requesting candidates observed the process as instructed and did not participate in the challenging of ballots.
Voter suppression: Although not explicitly stated as illegal, the town did not advertise the election on the sign at town hall, nor on their webpage. Consequently, only 135 voters of the registered 706 cast their ballots in the election.
Mindy Kearns is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.