Ward II candidate Melissa Strother, left, stands with disqualified candidate Cheryl Calhoun in this file photo. The State Elections Board has forwarded the ongoing city of Albany 2011 Ward II Municipal Election case to Assistant Attorney General Russ Willard for further scrutiny “in a non-adversarial way."
MACON, Ga. — The State Elections Board forwarded the ongoing city of Albany 2011 Ward II Municipal Election case to Assistant Attorney General Russ Willard for further scrutiny "in a non-adversarial way" after a probable cause hearing here Thursday.
Willard will take a closer look at the facts of the case, which centers around the disqualification of candidate Cheryl Calhoun after city officials discovered their "human error" had incorrectly determined Calhoun lived in Ward II when she qualified to run for the Albany City Commission when she actually lived in Ward I.
The assistant AG may either dismiss the case outright, send it to the attorney general's office for further action or meet with Dougherty County elections officials to provide further instruction.
Calhoun, who had attempted to qualify as a candidate in Ward I, was eventually allowed to qualify in Ward II after city of Albany officials misread GIS documentation. When the error was discovered, the Albany-Dougherty Board of Registration and Elections disqualified Calhoun as a candidate.
State law at the time forbade county officials from returning Calhoun's qualifying fee, but Albany City Manager James Taylor decided unilaterally to return the fee out of city discretionary funds since the error was made in a municipal election. The state General Assembly, led by Leesburg Rep. Ed Rynders, passed legislation the following year that allowed election boards to return qualifying fees if no error was made by a candidate who was eventually disqualified.
"(Thursday's hearing) was not about me trying to get money (for signs and campaign time), although it did come up during the meeting," Calhoun said after the hearing. "And it wasn't about me being mad or upset with Ms. (Elections Supervisor Ginger) Nickerson or the Elections board. I just felt like I needed to make a statement to help make sure nothing like this happens again.
"There was no harshness, no grudge on anybody's part. I think it's very clear this was just a human mistake. (County Attorney) Mr. Spencer Lee did an awesome job of explaining the situation to the state board. And while there was no real indication of what might happen next, it blew me away that (the state) was still investigating this situation."
Lee, who went to the hearing to represent Nickerson and the Elections board, said that while the county regretted the mistake that was made that led to Calhoun's disqualification, Nickerson, her staff and the Elections board had done what each was charged with doing during and in the aftermath of the situation.
"We don't have an argument with Ms. Calhoun; no one's mad at her and we don't feel that she has any animosity toward anyone," Lee said. "It was a mistake, a human error, and as soon as it was discovered Ms. Nickerson self-reported it to the attorney general's office.
"I think a lot of the confusion that's still around, and, frankly, the reason this hearing came before the State Elections Board, is that the media reported after the election that there would be a runoff (in Ward II) between (remaining candidates) Ivey Hines and Melissa Strother because Ms. Calhoun got more than 200 votes, and Mr. Hines won by only 43 votes.
"But state law clearly says that in the event that a candidate is disqualified in a race, any votes cast for that candidate are void, as if they'd never been cast. There was more confusion when Melissa Strother filed a lawsuit challenging the election and the judge (Joe Bishop) dismissed the case because (Strother's) attorney (Bo Dorough) had named Ms. Nickerson as the defendant rather than the Elections board."
In a report previously requested by the secretary of state's office, Calhoun had complained that a sign posted at polling sites in Ward II indicated she had "withdrawn" from the race rather than being disqualified.
"That may have been one of the reasons there was a hearing today a year and a half after the election," Lee said.
Attempts to contact Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who serves as chairman of the five-member State Elections Board, board member Rusty Simpson of Tifton and Nickerson late Thursday afternoon were not successful.