June 9, 2017 11:30:16 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
Caledonia's election commission announced Thursday it would ask voters to return to the polls to elect the mayor and board of aldermen in the wake of ballot mishandling that led the commission chair to resign.
Election commissioners voted 4-0 to toss out the results of Caledonia's general election on Tuesday, which included a closely contested mayor's race between incumbent Bill Lawrence and challenger Mitch Wiggins that had descended into multiple recounts.
The decision came after attorney Corky Smith, representing Wiggins, appeared before the commission to request Tuesday's election be put aside and a new election scheduled. Smith cited violations of state election laws concerning the handling of the ballot box.
Smith said election commission chair Ken Byars acknowledged he had taken the ballot box home Tuesday evening and the box was not properly sealed, which Smith contended were both violations of the law and invalidated the election. Byars resigned his position on the election commission. The next election will be conducted by the three remaining members - Donna Egger, Martha Hopkins and Mildred Wiggins, who is Mitch Wiggins' aunt.
"I'm good with that," Byars said. "I know that I didn't do anything intentionally wrong. To tell you the truth, we didn't even know we had the seals and I didn't know there was anything wrong with taking the ballot box with me. I had to take it somewhere when we left at midnight Tuesday. I put it in my locked truck and the box was padlocked and I had the key. In the past, we never had a situation where the election carried over until the next day. I regret what happened. It wasn't intentional."
Town attorney Chris Hemphill said the commission had the option of throwing out the results and calling a new election or continuing with a fourth count of the ballots in the contested mayor's race and certifying the election.
"It was entirely the commission's decision," Hemphill said. "My only role was to advise them what their options are."
Three previous counts of the votes -- the initial count held Tuesday after the polls closed -- and two recounts resulted in three different tallies. Lawrence held leads of one vote in two of those counts while the other count showed a tie.
"I don't have much to say," Lawrence said. "I feel like the election was taken away from me."
Wiggins said he is not concerned that his effort to seek a new election might be viewed as a means of circumventing the three counts, none of which had him winning the race.
"I was concerned early on that we never could get a correct tally," Wiggins said. "There were three (counts) with three different totals. Then, when it came to light that (Byars) took the ballot box, without accusing anybody of deliberate wrongdoing, it became a mountain of small things that added up. No matter how it would have turned out, half the town was always going to have that doubt in their mind.
"It's not as much about what happens between me and Bill Lawrence as it is making sure we have a fair process."
The new election
Hemphill initially said the current mayor and board would have to meet in a special-call meeting to set the date for the new election. Later, after consulting with state attorney general's office, he informed the commission that the responsibility for setting the date of the new election belongs to the commission.
The commission will meet with candidates Monday at 6 p.m. at town hall to set the date for the election.
Hemphill said state laws requires that the election must be held no sooner than 30 days after the commission meets and no longer than 45 days after that meeting. That would mean the election must be held between July 12 and July 27.
The ballot for the new election will remain the same as Tuesday's.
Lawrence and Wiggins will run for mayor while nine candidates will be vying for the five spots on the board of alderman.
Aldermen candidates are Tammy McCool, Quinn Parham, Matt Furnari, Bill Darnell, Tyler Brock, Buzzy Vizgard, Matt Atkins, Nick Jackson and Tim Butler.
Tuesday's vote had McCool, Parham, Furnari, Darnell and Brock earning board positions.
Furnari, who finished third in the aldermen voting, said the decision to discard the results of Tuesday's vote and call a new election was a mistake.
"I don't agree with the decision, to tell you the truth, and I told Mitch (Wiggins) that," Furnari said. "Nobody questioned the outcome of the aldermen's race, but the new election may mean that some of the aldermen chosen Tuesday may lose their seats, even though they did absolutely nothing wrong and they were chosen by the people."
Only 10 votes separated the fifth, sixth and seventh place candidates.
"Who knows how it will turn out now?" Furnari said. "To me, this whole things just puts the town in a bad light."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]