May 9, 2013 10:31:22 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
Starkville's process of determining valid affidavit ballots concluded one tight race Wednesday, but another election result remains unsolved.
Incoming Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker defeated his challenger, John Gaskin, yesterday 194-190 after collecting eight affidavit votes, but the Ward 2 race between Democrats Sandra Sistrunk and Lisa Wynn began its third day today when the candidates, party officials and election commission met at 10:30 a.m. to validate ballots.
The process is expected to take much of the day. Sistrunk could challenge the entire Ward 2 election, but that attempt has not yet been made.
Affidavits became a key factor in these two races Tuesday night after absentee and regular ballots could not clearly determine the two races' winners. Sistrunk led Wynn by a two-vote margin (179-177), but Gaskin and Walker split the vote 186 each after Tuesday's Democratic primaries.
A lengthy process to validate affidavits began Wednesday at 9 a.m. Those affidavits, which serve as sworn statements in addition to votes, were cast Tuesday by voters who were either out of their jurisdiction, off the voter rolls or victim of some other voting anomaly. Candidates and election commissioners scrutinized each ballot on its individual merits.
Ward 4 began the day with 16 potential votes. An address-verification process early Tuesday morning confirmed nine of those affidavits, while seven remained questionable. Twelve ballots were eventually approved by the election commission, but four were tossed for numerous issues.
One issue emerged when poll workers who witnessed the affidavits initialed the ballots instead of signing them. City officials and candidates discussed the issue with state counsel through numerous phone conferences.
The city admitted its poll worker had made a mistake -- the specific witness initialed some affidavits but signed others. Arguments for state statute requiring the signatures won out, and two ballots with initialing were rejected by the commission.
"To be denied your vote because of a clerical error...I'm not blaming anybody, but I hate it for those voters," Gaskin said following the affidavit count. "This election proves two things; every vote counts and they do not count if clerical errors exist."
Election officials counted the approved ballots at approximately 5 p.m. for Ward 4, and Walker emerged with a four-vote margin of victory. Both opponents thanked each other and their supporters and acknowledged their opponent's well-fought campaigns.
"Over the next four years, I will strive to strengthen our local economy and create jobs, protect homeowners' property values and strategically prioritize capital improvement projects that ensure our streets, schools, parks and public spaces promote revenue-generating development that improves our citizens' quality of life," Walker said.
Election commissioners began scrutinizing Ward 2 affidavits, but the process was delayed until Thursday because numerous ballots remain in limbo until state counsel addresses concerns. Commissioners rejected six of 17 affidavits outright late Thursday afternoon.
Sistrunk's camp contested a majority of the ballots during that process, and Wynn referred to those efforts as "grasping at straws" while the two candidates grappled over one affidavit. While Sistrunk's representative, Lydia Quarles, challenged how voters input personal information on the ballots, other issues emerged including ballots cast by voters who could not be found on voter rolls.
The entire process ended Wednesday when, due to the sheer number of questions concerning the challenged ballots, additional conference calls with state counsel were needed after their offices had closed.
City officials say they expect a legal challenge for the entire Ward 2 election, though no such challenge was issued Wednesday.
"The affidavit ballot is in place to protect voters when they encounter a problem in voting. That effort to protect those voting by affidavit ballot must also be extended to other voters, and the review process is in place to do that," Sistrunk said after Wednesday's election processes. "While we'd all like to resolve this as soon as we can, it's important to take the time --and we're talking a few days at most -- to get this right."
Wynn said she would not give a statement until the affidavits were counted and asked media not to contact her Wednesday evening.
Follow @StarkDispatch on Twitter for election updates.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch