Last year during the municipal elections in Albany, one aspect of the controversial Ward II City Commission race was headed in a patently unfair direction before Albany City Manager James Taylor stepped in.
The election still has not been fully laid to rest, though Ivey Hines was seated at the commission table to represent Ward II. His opponent, Melissa Strother, is challenging the results with a lawsuit in Dougherty Superior Court.
Strother charges irregularities in the election, but the biggest issue is whether 247 votes that were cast for a third candidate, Cheryl Calhoun, who was disqualified from the Ward II race, should have been included in the total number of votes cast. Dougherty elections officials ruled, based on information from state elections officials, that Calhoun’s votes were nullified — in effect, never cast — and that Hines won with a simple majority of the votes cast for him and Strother. If Calhoun’s votes were counted against the total, neither Hines nor Strother would have a simple majority and the election would go to a runoff between the two.
Pataula Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Joe Bishop is presiding in the case and has not yet ruled whether to uphold the election results as they stand.
While that case has not been decided, the fate of Calhoun’s candidacy was. The facts are that Calhoun went to the elections office to qualify to run for the Ward I City Commission seat. She was told by elections officials that she was a resident of Ward II, not Ward I. She questioned that, but qualified to run in Ward II. A week before the November election — and deep into the advance voting period — Calhoun’s residency was challenged, the Elections Board reviewed its maps and determined that she actually lives in Ward I — the ward for which she originally wanted to qualify.
What made matters worse was after she was disqualified from the Ward II race, elections officials were bound by state law not to refund her qualifying fee, even though elections officials created the error that resulted in her being kicked out of the race. Taylor stepped forward and did the right thing by paying Calhoun $450 from city funds, the equivalent of her qualification fee.
The unfairness of the law, however, remains. Under Georgia law, a person can attempt to qualify to run for office and has no legal recourse to demand the refund of a qualification fee. This makes sense in some cases, such as those where candidates qualify, pay their fee and then want their money back if the opposition looks too formidable. But when a candidate like Calhoun has attempted to follow the rules and the system lets her down, there should be a mechanism for that candidate to get his or her fee refunded. One could also argue that campaign spending should be refunded as well, but at minimum the qualifying fees should be reimbursed.
State Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, has introduced legislation that would do just that — allow for a refund for candidates who are disqualified through no fault of their own. It’s hard to imagine that any Georgia lawmaker would have a problem with adjusting the election law so that the right thing is done.
It won’t give Calhoun a do-over to run for Ward I — that’s been decided for four years — and it won’t resolve the court case pending in regard to Ward II. But in the end, with Rynders’ help, Calhoun will have been instrumental in improving the state’s election system. “To be a part of this makes it worth all the pain I went through,” she said.
And even without a seat at the City Commission table, she will have made a positive impact.