Candidates allege that election officials screwed up and now voters are paying the price
Written by Tom Knighton
It would be easy to say that Ward II was a mess, but candidate Melissa Strother and former candidate Cheryl Calhoun might take exception to the use of the past tense. In their minds, it’s still very much messed up, and the only solution is a runoff between declared winner Ivey Hines and Strother.
“We want your voices to be heard, and that hasn’t happened in this election,” Strother told reporters Monday outside of the Government Center. The contention stems from election officials’ decision to throw out 259 votes cast for Calhoun, some of which were cast prior to her disqualification from the race due to an issue with residency.
The story first begins in August, when Calhoun attempted to qualify in the Ward I race to challenge commissioner John Howard. She reports that election supervisor Ginger Nickerson told her that she didn’t reside in Ward I, but Ward II and would need to qualify during the special election qualifying period for the seat Dorothy Hubbard vacated in her bid to be Albany’s next mayor.
Calhoun and her husband Randall say they argued the point, even showing Nickerson on a map that they did indeed live in Ward I. Nickerson held her ground, and eventually Calhoun relented and eventually qualified for the Ward II race.
Several weeks ago, the Journal reported that was in fact a Ward I resident. A meeting of the Election Board was held and Calhoun was disqualified.
Election officials claimed that it was too late to change the electronic ballot and proceeded along with the election. Election night, early numbers showed Strother with a clear lead, when suddenly things changed. By the time the votes were all counted, Calhoun had garnered 259 votes. The decision was made to throw out all of Calhoun’s votes. “I was blindsided when they said they were going to throw her votes away,” said Strother.
Strother could have just shrugged and walked away, but there were factors at play that made her decide to dig in and fight.
In a 2,400 word report distributed to reporters at Monday’s press conference, there were many allegations made to what are described as “irregularities” in the voting process. One allegation, which the Journal also received from Ward II voters, regarded signs. According to state law, signs must be place prominently to inform voters that a candidate is no longer a valid selection. However, voters in one precinct report that the sign regarding Calhoun was located on an exit door. In another precinct, the sign was reportedly placed on a bulletin board full of papers having nothing to do with the election.
Ward II voter Robin Goodson says she didn’t see anything at her precinct. “I did not see anything saying she was not a candidate. The room you vote in at the church on Palmyra is a very small room and I don’t see how I could have missed it,” she said.
Still other allegations stem from an unusual number of absentee votes cast at Jackson Heights precinct. The report states that Hines received a staggering 102 votes by absentee ballot, 62 of them mailed in, at Jackson Heights. These are far fewer than the total he received at Palmyra Road Methodist Church (17), Phoebe Educational Building (7), or at Albany Middle School (14). In fact, the totals of all absentee votes at these three (39) are far fewer than the absentee ballots filed in person at Jackson Heights.
The percentage of votes by absentee ballot is also rather lopsided. Palmyra Road Methodist Church totaled just 3.8 percent, Phoebe Educational Building totaled 3.31 percent, and Albany Middle School totaled 4.04 percent of their votes coming from absentee ballots. Compare that to Jackson Heights 7.93 percent.
So what can be done to make this right? As far as Strother and Calhoun are concerned, a runoff between Strother and Hines is the only option. “You can’t just throw away 259 people’s votes,” Calhoun said. “It’s not her fault,” Calhoun went on to say. “They took our rights away.”
“I’m asking for a runoff,” Strother said. When reporters asked about Calhoun’s place in Strother’s challenge, Strother replied, “Cheryl’s backing me.”
“1 million percent,” Calhoun followed up.
Calhoun and Strother weren’t the only ones taking issue with the race. Also at the press conference was Ward II resident Johnny L. “Rabbitman” Williams, who had harsh words for the Elections Board. “Something’s wrong with the officials running this election.”
Williams also attests that he didn’t see a sign regarding Calhoun no longer being a valid candidate. When a reporter asked him when he first learned Calhoun had been disqualified, Williams responded “I learned it from reading the Herald, the next day.”
“These people are constantly making mistakes,” Williams said. He too asked for a runoff election to settle the matter. “I’m questioning the Civil Rights Act,” Williams said about votes being discounted.
Calhoun believes that there were more mistakes in this election than just the Ward I race. “Even Ward I wasn’t fair because I wanted to run. I deserve a chance to run,” she said.
Also at play in the report are the 55 votes cast for Calhoun prior to her disqualification. While it is uncertain who those voters would have backed, the fact remains that they voted for a valid candidate for the Ward II race at the time, only to have their votes be thrown out without cause.
Strother and Calhoun will meet again at the Government Center on Wednesday at 4:00 pm. The Albany Journal will be there as well. Look for details on our website (http://thealbanyjournal.com) to find out more.
Former Ward II candidate Cheryl Calhoun stands behind one-time opponent Melissa Strother as a show of support as Strother speaks with reporter outside the Government Center to outline problems with the election process.