CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Ballots from a small-town election that has been in dispute since June have been secured in the evidence locker of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department.
There isn’t necessarily an investigation unfolding, but the election in Harpers Ferry has gone so long without a conclusion that local officials concluded additional steps became necessary to make sure the ballots are secure.
“We determined that the best thing to do would be to take all that into custody and they are secured in our evidence room, which is virtually impregnable,” said Jefferson County Sheriff Pete Dougherty.
Placing the ballots in lockup is the latest twist in an election saga that has gone on for months.
“I would have thought a little simple election with a little over 200 votes would not require this kind of attention either,” Dougherty said.
What should happen with the historic Hill Top House Hotel property was in sharp debate when citizens of the town of about 300 people voted this past summer.
As plans to redevelop the property moved forward, residents focused on whether rights-of-way owned by the town would be used, affecting public access to a scenic overlook.
Five council positions were up for grabs.
Initially, the results showed five incumbents were the top vote getters. The top candidate got 90 votes and the fifth candidate got 83.
The candidates initially in sixth and seventh place got 82 and 81 votes.
Those candidates, Nancy Case and Deborah McGee, have been challenging the results ever since. In particular, they are contesting rulings that four provisional ballots would not be counted.
Those ballots were initially considered to be cast by voters who lived outside the municipal limits. But Case and McGee contend those voters were mistakenly listed in the nearby Bolivar voting district, not Harpers Ferry
That happened, they contend, because of an error that occurred when the four residents registered to vote through the state Division of Motor Vehicles. The mistake placed their home addresses outside the municipality.
The Harpers Ferry Board of Canvassers first took a look at the ballots and declined to count them. Case and McGee then appealed to Harpers Ferry Town Council, serving as an election tribunal. That meant two of the incumbents who could lose their seats heard the appeal.
The Council voted to leave the disputed ballots uncounted, with the town recorder and a councilman dissenting and contending that the situation was being guided by “conflict of interest and political gaming.”
So the two candidates took their case to circuit court in Jefferson County. Judge Debra McLaughlin heard the case Oct. 28 and later issued a 15-page ruling mostly in favor of Case and McGee. The judge ordered a recount, including the disputed ballots.
The same day her decision was reached, lawyers for the majority of council members filed notice of appeal to the state Supreme Court. So Judge McLaughlin ordered a temporary stay.
In the meantime, some members of council gathered early this week to attempt to conduct the re-count. Over the course of a couple of hours, though, not enough council members appeared to constitute a quorum.
Around the, the issue of the actual location of the ballots arose. That’s when the sheriff’s department got involved.
“There was a call made a couple of days ago that indicated the ballots had been moved from the location they had been purported to be stored at,” Dougherty said. “At that point, they were considered to be missing.”
Dougherty declined to specify where the ballots initially were believed to be or where they wound up. He said the sheriff’s department did locate them and made sure they would be secure.
He said the ballots did not appear to have been disturbed.
“We did not see anything that would indicate to us that the seals had been broken or that anybody had gotten into the ballots,” he said.
“But our job at that point wasn’t to try to make that kind of determination. We were just holding them and continuing to hold them for safekeeping.”
The Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees West Virginia elections, has also been involved.
Deak Kersey, the general counsel for the office, said it would be premature to make a judgment on whether the ballots were stored properly. He said the ballots had been in the town Recorder’s office, which is routinely locked but not optimal.
“There is apparently a discrepancy over why the provisional ballots were not stored in a safe, but instead kept in a filing cabinet in the otherwise-locked Recorder’s office,” Kersey stated.
Kersey added that the envelopes remain sealed with signatures of the Board of Canvassers across the seal. He described the integrity of ballots as a supreme concern.
“At this juncture,” Kersey said, “it is up to the courts to decide whether an examination of the ballots is necessary.”
Jefferson County Prosecutor Matt Harvey confirmed that his office has been looped in, but “Any investigation is being done by the sheriff’s department.”
Sheriff Dougherty said the ballots are now in a safe place in case more questions arise.
“Yes, what we’re doing is we’re holding them pending further inquiry. But we’re holding them just to make sure they’re safe and to make sure they can be produced and presented,” he said.
“And whatever the results are, are the results.”