It may take the wisdom of Solomon to come up with an equitable resolution for the controversies swirling around the Albany City Commission Ward II race.
To recount the events, Cheryl Calhoun, who resides in Ward I near the boundary of Ward II, went to the Dougherty County Elections Office to sign up to challenge the dean of the Albany City Commission, Jon Howard.
Elections officials entered her information into the system and told her she couldn’t run for the Ward I seat because she actually resided in Ward II, confirming that assertion to her and her husband several times. Fortunately, Ward II Commissioner Dorothy Hubbard had vacated her Ward II commission seat to run for mayor, so Calhoun was told she could come back the following week to qualify to run in Ward II. (She and her husband even received a registration card stating they voted in Ward II at some point.)
Calhoun did just that, bringing to three the number of contestants vying to finish out the term Hubbard started. A complaint was filed against Calhoun’s qualifications by Kevin Hogencamp, and the Elections Board conducted a called meeting Oct. 26 to address the complaint. In reviewing the information, the board determined Calhoun, as she had originally argued, lives in Ward I after all, resulting in three things, none of which were good for Calhoun — (1) she was tossed out of the Ward II race, (2) qualifying for Ward I was closed, so she couldn’t run for that seat either, and (3) the board under state law couldn’t refund her $450 filing fee, even for an error the Elections Office made.
That, by the way, is something the state Legislature should address in the session that starts in January. If a candidate is disqualified through no fault of his or her own but because of an error of government, it is absolutely unfair that the candidate cannot recover the qualification fee.
The lone bright spot has been that City Manager James Taylor stepped up and reimbursed Calhoun her qualification fee from his discretionary fund. That’s about the only thing that’s come out right in this series of events.
Calhoun’s name was on the absentee and early-voting ballots for Ward II, so there were expectations that she would get some votes in the contest. Her name was also on the ballots that voters in Ward II saw on election day, Nov. 8. Conspicuous notices were to have been posted at the Ward II precincts to warn voters that Calhoun was no longer a candidate.
But at the end of the day, Calhoun pulled in 247 votes. In addition, there have been complaints from voters in the ward that the signs stating that Calhoun was disqualified were not as prominent as they should have been. If Calhoun’s votes had counted, vote leader Ivey Hines, who was named on 568 ballots, and runner-up Melissa Strother, who was chosen on 523 ballots, would have been included in the Dec. 6 runoff election. After consulting with state election officials, however, the Elections Board nullified the ballots for Calhoun, which means, right or wrong, that 247 registered voters of Ward II were disenfranchised.
With those votes tossed out as if they were never cast, it also means that Hines easily had the simple majority he needed for outright election. The board certified the results Tuesday and declared him the winner. Since the election was to complete a term in progress, the Albany City Commission plans to seat him at the earliest opportunity, which appears to be this coming Tuesday.
Strother, however, has indicated she plans to contest the results in the court system. In an extraordinary statement at Wednesday’s Elections Board meeting, Dougherty County Attorney Spencer Lee said that the Elections Board and community agreed that the challenge should be made.
We agree with that assessment. A judge should review these events and decisions and determine whether the election should stand, move to a runoff or be tossed and a new election called. There were too many votes cast for Calhoun to argue that the mistakes did not materially affect the results. If Hines is to serve, he does not need this cloud hanging over his head. Calhoun has already been irreparably harmed by these mistakes and events, so a court should make a determination that a similar disservice has not befallen Strother.
But even more importantly, the court should determine whether 247 citizens who exercised their right to vote have been unfairly disenfranchised.