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Strother, Calhoun take aim at elections office

By   /   November 14, 2011  /   Comments

They say that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”  If that’s true, then the Dougherty County Elections Board had better watch out, because there are two women who feel scorned.

At a press conference, both Melissa Strother and Cheryl Calhoun argued that the Ward II election shouldn’t be over yet. “We want your voice to be heard, and that hasn’t happened with this election,” Strother told reporters outside the Government Center as she laid out her case that the Ward II contest should be held as a runoff.

The Ward II situation started back in August, when the elections office told Calhoun that she was ineligible to challenge John Howard for his Ward I seat since she actually lived in Ward II.  After lengthy discussions, Calhoun and her husband Randall finally relented and qualified for the seat Dorothy Hubbard vacated in her efforts to be Albany’s next mayor.  Then, just weeks before the election, it was discovered that Calhoun does indeed live in Ward I.

Last Tuesday, there was allegedly a great deal of confusion as Calhoun’s name still appeared on the ballot despite media reports that she was no longer qualified.  Calhoun reports that some Ward II voters told her that they voted for her because her name was on the ballot, apparently believing that reports of her disqualification were in error.

Strother, on election night, recounts how she was in the lead for most of the night.  It was then decided that Calhoun’s votes would not count at all, and Ivey Hines declared the winner.  “I was blindsided when they said they were going to throw her votes away,” Strother said.

Below is the full text of a report distributed by Strother regarding what she calls “irregularities” in the election.

Albany Election Irregularities Report

November 8, 2011 Municipal Election

 

 

OUTLINE

 

       I.            Statement

    II.            Principal Irregularities

  1. A.    Error in Illegally Placing Candidate Cheryl Calhoun on Ward 2 Ballot
  2. B.     Failure to Allow Candidate Cheryl Calhoun to Participate in the Ward 1 Race
  3. C.    Failure to Postpone the Ward 2 Election Due to the Dougherty County Elections Office’s Erroneous Placement of a Candidate in the Race
  4. D.    Extraordinary Number of Votes Cast for Disqualified Candidate Cheryl Calhoun
    1. 1.     Failure to Remove Cheryl Calhoun’s Name From the Electronic Ballot
    2. 2.     Failure to Publish Legal Notices and Advertisements Announcing the Disqualification of Candidate Cheryl Calhoun
    3. 3.     Failure to Provide an Opportunity to Allow Voters Who

Cast Votes for Candidate Cheryl Calhoun Before the Disqualification to Participate in the Election

  1. 4.     Failure to Prominently Place Signage at the Voting Stations and Otherwise Notify Voters of Cheryl Calhoun’s Disqualification from the Ward 2 race
  2. 5.     Inaccurate Information on Precinct Signage Regarding Cheryl Calhoun’s Disqualification
  3. E.     Extraordinary Number of Absentee Ballots cast in the Jackson Heights Precinct for Ward 2 Candidate Ivey Hines.

 III.            Petition to Contest

 IV.            Public Records Request

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I. Statement

 

This report is presented to the Dougherty County Voter Registration and Elections Department, the Dougherty County Board of Elections, the Albany City Commission, the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, other agencies as necessary, and to the general public with the utmost of respect.

 

The goals in pursuing this matter are: to achieve a fair outcome for all candidates in the November 8, 2011 City of Albany municipal election, including but not limited to Cheryl Calhoun, Ivey Hines and Melissa Strother; to ensure that all rules and laws were followed pertaining to the execution of elections; and to ensure that Constitutional rights are candidates and voters are upheld. All citizens should have equal rights and abilities to pursue candidacy for public office and all citizens should have equal ability to participate as voters and to have their votes counted. In the case of the November 8 City of Albany municipal election, candidates’ rights and voters’ rights were abridged.

 

A deliberate effort is made within this report to: list only the most relevant, definitive irregularities; list the irregularities in order of chronology and/or significance; and refrain from listing all irregularities associated with the election. Information regarding irregularities not listed in this report is available upon request.

 

II. Principal Irregularities

 

A. Error in Placing Candidate Cheryl Calhoun in Ward 2 Race

 

On Monday, Aug. 29, 2011, Cheryl Calhoun was the first candidate to attempt to qualify for the Albany City Commission seat representing Ward 1, where she lives. She was wrongfully denied an opportunity to seek that office. She was erroneously told that she lived in Ward 2 and the Dougherty County Voter Registration and Elections Department refused to allow Calhoun to enter the Ward 1 race in spite of being strongly encouraged by Calhoun to review the ward map. This wasn’t a situation in which the answer wasn’t easily determinable. Clearly, Calhoun lives east of the dividing line, Maple Street. Despite her objections, Calhoun was forced to qualify as a candidate for the Ward 2 seat, a position that she could not legally hold.

 

B. Failure to Allow Candidate Cheryl Calhoun to Participate in the Ward 1 Race

 

On Oct. 25, 2011, eight days after advance voting and absentee voting had begun, the Dougherty County Voter Registration and Elections Department was convinced to publicly reveal its blunder. It was one thing to make an error in putting Calhoun on the Ward 2 ballot; it was another, more deliberate victimization of a citizen’s right to seek public office by not postponing the Ward 1 election and putting Calhoun on that ballot. This decision was a deliberate choice to not to safeguard the integrity of the election for City Commissioner of Ward 1.

 

C. Failure to Postpone the Ward 2 Election Due to the Dougherty County Elections Office’s Erroneous Placement of a Candidate in the Race

 

Regarding the Ward 2 election, because balloting had begun on October 17, 2011 and Cheryl Calhoun undoubtedly had received some votes, the most prudent course of action would have been to postpone the election so that candidates Ivey Hines and Melissa Strother would have an equal opportunity to solicit and obtain support for their campaigns. However, rather than ensuring that a fair election for Ward 2 City Commissioner was held, a choice was made to jeopardize the election’s outcome by continuing with the Ward 2 election on Nov. 8 as scheduled.

 

D. Extraordinary Number of Votes Cast for Disqualified Candidate Cheryl Calhoun

 

It can be argued that election results may not have to be discarded if the errors and/or fraud that occur in the execution of elections have no potential of jeopardizing the election’s outcome. In the case of the Ward 2 election, the election’s integrity and outcome were undeniably jeopardized by the Elections Office’s blunder and the additional irregularities previously and subsequently described in this report.

 

Calhoun received 19.03 percent of the vote – 259 votes in all. Many of those votes were cast before Calhoun was disqualified; many more of those votes were cast by voters who were not aware that Calhoun had been disqualified; and even more were cast by people who were aware that Calhoun had been disqualified, but thought the decision was reversed because Calhoun’s name remained on the ballot. (Evidence of this statement is being provided as a supplement to this report.)

 

Following is a list of irregularities that directly resulted in the extraordinary number of votes cast for Calhoun, the candidate placed on the Ward 2 ballot against her will and who could have never legally served in the position.

 

1. Failure to Remove Cheryl Calhoun’s Name from the Electronic Ballot

 

O.C.G.A. 21-2-134 states: “If the ballots have been printed, the Secretary of State or the county or municipal superintendent may reprint the ballots to omit the name of the withdrawn candidate.” Instead of directly addressing its blunder by removing Calhoun’s name from the electronic ballot, and in spite of how simply it would have been to do so, the Dougherty County Voter Registration and Elections Department continued to list Calhoun as a legitimate candidate for Ward 2 throughout advance voting and for the entirety of Election Day. (Indeed, Calhoun’s name was the first name on the ballot.) This decision directly resulted in many voters selecting an erroneously placed candidate for public office who could have never legally served in the position.

 

2. Failure to Publish Legal Notices and Advertisements Announcing the Disqualification of Candidate Cheryl Calhoun

 

Another obvious response to the Dougherty County Voter Registration and Elections Department’s blunder being revealed after advance voting and absentee voting had begun should have been to publish legal advertisements and otherwise dutifully notify the public of what happened. This was deliberately not done. Indeed, an accurate ballot was not published in the community’s legal organ and there was no notification to the public of Cheryl Calhoun’s disqualification among the free avenues of communication regularly used by Dougherty County government, including in the city-county newsletter, on the city-county website, or on the city-county government access station.

 

3. Failure to Provide an Opportunity to Allow Voters Who Cast Votes for Calhoun Before the Disqualification to Participate in the Election

 

When the Election’s Office’s blunder was revealed, a routine course of action to ensure that everyone had a fair opportunity to participate in the election should have been to notify citizens who had early voted and those who had absentee voted of the unfortunate scenario at hand. Those voters should have been provided an opportunity to choose directly between Ivey Hines and Melissa Strother. They were deliberately not given that opportunity, a decision by the Dougherty County Voter Registration and Elections Department that directly jeopardized the election’s outcome. Indeed, as it turned out, 55 votes were cast by Calhoun via absentee ballot. That number in itself obliterated the election’s integrity, as Ivey Hines defeated Melissa Strother by only 44 votes.

 

4. Failure to Prominently Place Signage at the Voting Stations and Otherwise Notify Voters of Cheryl Calhoun’s Disqualification from the Ward 2 race
Georgia election law makes specific provisions for election officials to follow when candidates withdraw from political races after any ballots have printed. In those cases (which wasn’t the case in this scenario because candidate Cheryl Calhoun didn’t withdraw – she was erroneously put on the ballot and then disqualified), elections officials are to prominently display signage explaining what happened.

 

To ensure that all voters see the signage, the prominently displayed signage should be posted – among other places — at the entryway to the precincts for all voters to see and again at each polling station. In this case, neither was done.  In at least one precinct, no signage was posted at all. In at least one other precinct, an 8.5-inch-by-11-inch notice was posted for voters to see as they exited the precinct. No signs were posted at polling stations.

 

5. Inaccurate Information on Precinct Signage Regarding Cheryl Calhoun’s Disqualification

 

A notice posted at one polling station, and perhaps others, inaccurately stated that Calhoun withdrew from the Ward 2 race. She, of course, didn’t withdraw. Indeed, she sought to be a Ward 1 candidate and was illegally denied that opportunity.

 

O.C.G.A. 21-2-522(1) & (5) states that the standard of review for elections was succinctly outlined by the Georgia Supreme Court: “An election will not be invalidated unless the party contesting the election demonstrates an irregularity or illegality sufficient to change or place in doubt the result. To carry that burden, the challenger must show a specific number of illegal or irregular ballots — and that number must be sufficient to cast doubt on the result of the election.”

 

Clearly, the burden is carried as outlined above and in the extraordinary number of absentee ballots cast in the Jackson Heights precinct for Ward 2 candidate Ivey Hines and mayoral candidate John White.

 

E. Extraordinary Number of Absentee Ballots cast in the Jackson Heights Precinct for Ward 2 Candidate Ivey Hines

 

Another critical red flag is blatant in this election: the casting of absentee ballots in the Jackson Heights precinct – particularly by mail — in favor of Ward 2 candidate Hines. Considering the outcome of the election via advance voting and election-day voting, the outcome of the absentee balloting was so astonishingly in favor of Hines, particularly those cast by mail, that a review of the absentee ballot applications and interviews of those who voted via absentee ballot are warranted.
Here are some numbers pertaining to absentee ballots cast in the four Ward 2 election precincts:

 

  • Ivey Hines received an astonishing 102 absentee votes in the Jackson Heights Elementary School precinct; of those, 62 were by mail.
  • 29 percent of all the 354 votes cast for Hines in the Jackson Heights precinct were by absentee ballot. In contrast, 9.9 percent (30 votes) of the 303 votes cast for Melissa Strother in her home precinct (Palmyra Road Methodist Church) were cast by absentee ballot.
  • 18 percent of all votes cast for Hines in the Jackson Heights precinct were by mail-in absentee ballot. In contrast, 1.3 percent (4 votes) of all votes cast for Strother in her home precinct were cast by mail-in absentee ballot.
  • 11 percent of all votes cast for Hines in the entire election were cast by mail-in absentee ballot in the Jackson Heights precinct. In contrast, 0.7 percent of all votes cast for Strother in her home precinct were by mail-in absentee ballot.
  • Absentee ballots aside, Melissa Strother defeated Ivey Hines by a count of 458 (41.66 percent) to 427 (38.85 percent).
  • Not counting mail-in ballots from their home precincts, Melissa Strother defeated Ivey Hines by a count of 519 to 505.

 

Notwithstanding the erroneous and illegal placement of Cheryl Calhoun on the Ward 2 ballot and the Dougherty County Voter Registration and Elections Department’s deliberate decision not to amend for its blunder as stated above, the absentee-ballot issue is disturbing and in itself jeopardizes the outcome of the Ward 2 election.

 

III. Petition to Contest

 

O.C.G.A. 21-2-522 states that elections may be contested on various grounds, including the following:

 

1. Misconduct, fraud, or irregularity by any primary or election official(s)

sufficient to change or place in doubt the results;

2. The receiving of illegal votes or the rejection of legal votes sufficient to

change or place in doubt the result of the election;

3. Any error in counting the votes or declaring the result of the primary or

election, if such error would change the result; or

4. For any other cause that shows that another was the person legally

nominated, elected, or eligible to compete in an election.

 

Further, O.C.G.A 21-2-540(c)(1)(B) specifically states that in order for a candidate to be declared a winner, a candidate must receive a majority (50 percent + 1) of the votes in order to be elected to office.

 

As such, if the election results are certified as currently published, a petition will be filed in Dougherty County Superior Court to contest the outcome of the Albany City Commission Ward 2 election on November 8, 2011 based on the grounds listed above.

 

IV. Public Records Request

 

This is a formal request made under the Georgia Open Records Act (O.C.G.A. 50-18-70) to obtain access to and permission to copy certain records from the Dougherty County Voter Registration and Elections Office.

 

Specifically, I am requesting:

1. All applications for absentee ballots cast in Ward 2 in the November 8, 2011                  election

2. A list of voters who participated in the November 8, 2011 Ward 2 election via   advance voting

3. A list of voters who participated in the November 8, 2011 Ward 2 election via   absentee ballot

4. A list of voters who participated in the November 8, 2011 Ward 2 election via   traditional election day voting.

5. A list of all citizens who assisted voters with absentee balloting in the     November 8, 2011 election.

 

I believe this information is of public interest and ask that you waive all fees and immediately provide the information, as is your practice. Indeed, before the election results are certified, I hope that you will vigorously review the public records to forensically review the election’s execution and investigate all irregularities that occurred.

 

Respectfully submitted on November 14, 2011

 

 

By:

 

 

________________________                   _________________________

Melissa Strother                                         Date

 

 

 

State of Georgia

County of Dougherty

 

This instrument was acknowledged before me on November 14, 2011, by    _________________________

Notary Public’s Signature

__________________________

[Notary's typed or printed name]

NOTARY PUBLIC FOR THE STATE OF GEORGIA

(Seal)

My commission expires:

 __________________________

 

[or Notary's Stamp]

 

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About the author

Owner / Editor / Writer

Tom Knighton is the publisher of The Albany Journal. In November, 2011, he became the first blogger to take over a newspaper anywhere in the world. In August of 2012, he made the difficult decision to take the Journal out of print circulation and become an online news agency, a first for the Albany area.

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