|Chancellor rules a new election must be held in LSSD race|
|Friday, September 7, 2012|
Chancellor C.K. Smith rules some voters were left out
By PATRICK HALL
A new election will be held Nov. 6 between two candidates for the Lebanon Special School District Board of Education race that appeared on the Aug. 2 ballot, after a court ruling Friday that said some voters were not given the opportunity to vote in that race.
Chancellor C.K. Smith ruled “mistakes, omissions or irregularities” caused the outcome of the LSSD school board race between Steve Jones and Johnie Payton, to be unclear. When the Wilson County Election Commission certified results on Aug. 14, Jones received 1,467 votes to Payton’s 1,468.Jones challenged the election in Chancery Court, claiming several voters didn’t get the chance to cast their vote in the LSSD race. Smith agreed with that claim and ruled the Aug. 2 results be set aside and a new election be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot by the election commission.
“What I think is fair is the people’s voice should be heard,” Smith said.
Jonathan Tinsley, attorney for Jones, called two witnesses who testified the LSSD race did not appear on the voting machine when they cast their votes on Election Day. It was established both Charlene Buhler and Rachel Hutchins lived within the LSSD zone and paid the special school district property taxes.
While Buhler and Hutchins were eligible to vote in the LSSD election, both testified they did not get the opportunity to do so on their ballot. Both testified they were planning to vote for Jones.
Buhler said she voted on Aug. 2 at the Jimmy Floyd Family Fun Center but her ballot “didn’t have a choice for this election.”
She said although the election didn’t appear on her ballot, she cast her vote anyway, and told poll workers afterwards. Buhler said the poll workers told her since she already completed the ballot and cast her vote, it could not be changed.
Payton’s attorney Tim Davis asked Buhler if she reviewed the ballot, which he said the voting machines prompt you to do before casting your vote. Buhler said she didn’t question what was on the ballot while she was voting.
“Why should I question anything,” she said, referring to the ballot. She did admit she knew she was eligible to vote in the LSSD race.
Hutchins said she voted also on Aug. 2 at Lebanon High School and the same problem occurred.
“I got to the end to cast my vote and thought it was strange,” she said of her ballot.
She said the LSSD race was not present on the ballot and reviewed her ballot two or three times. She said she also voted in a party primary and chose to complete that ballot, thinking the LSSD race would come up after that.
“I cast the party ballot thinking I needed to do that for the general ballot to come up,” Hutchins said.
Hutchins admitted she should have alerted a poll worker before completing the ballot, and also added she was planning to vote in the Wilson County School Board Zone 1 race between Vikki Adkins and Wayne McNeese, but that election wasn’t on her ballot either.
“You actually had questions about two elections but didn’t ask before you voted,” Attorney for the election commission Mike Jennings asked Hutchins.
Hutchins said that was correct and said she should have asked before pushing the final button to cast her vote.
Testimony during the hearing indicated Wilson County Administrator of Elections Phillip Warren knew there was a problem with LSSD maps and voters, and Hutchins and Buhler said poll workers at their polling places told them other voters had the same problem.
In both cases, the witnesses said when they alerted poll workers of the issue, workers at both polling locations said they had other complaints of the same type.
“She said something like, ‘this has happened before,’” Hutchins said, referring to a poll worker at LHS.
LSSD Director of Schools Scott Benson testified that Warren called him “three or four days” before Election Day and asked if they had maps of the LSSD boundaries.
“He (Warren) told me he had a situation where someone came in to vote and said they were in the LSSD but he (Warren) didn’t have them in the LSSD,” Benson said.
Benson said Warren asked about the map but Benson noted his secretary who would be able to answer the question was not in at the time. Benson said Warren wanted to set up a meeting about the problem but said, “I never heard anything back.”
Warren testified a man came in and when they looked at maps from the Wilson County Planning Commission, the man’s home was not in the LSSD. The man said he had been paying the LSSD tax but based on the map, Warren said, “He accepted that and went on voting.”
The election commission then obtained a different map from the Wilson County Assessor of Property Jack Pratt that showed different boundaries. Warren said there were 23 voters affected in an area that on one map was not in the LSSD and was in the district on the correct map from the Property Assessor’s office.
“We corrected that problem,” Warren said.
However, Warren said there was not a mechanical problem with the machine and detailed how the ballots are pulled up when a person goes in to vote. He said a code is inserted into the machine by a poll worker based on where the voter lives.
Smith was adamant there had been a problem either with the machine or a human error among poll workers that denied some people the right to vote in the LSSD race.
“I don’t think there is anyone in here, win or lose, that would say there was not a problem,” Smith said. “I don’t know what happened at two different polling places but there was a problem.”
Smith said he probably would have done the same thing as Buhler and Hutchins. He said they are educated people, but didn’t fault them for not asking about the ballot before casting their vote.
“I probably would not have raised my hand,” he said, referring to asking poll workers a question.
Smith said there was no fraud or illegality in the election, but noted either a technical or human error caused a problem and made the election results uncertain. He noted since the election commission has no way of knowing how many ballots had the same issue or how many people had the same problem but didn’t speak up, the election results could have changed.
“We know there were more because these poll workers told them,” Smith said.
Smith ruled that Jones could keep his seat on the LSSD board of education until results of the new election on Nov. 6 were certified.
After the hearing, Payton said several of her supporters approached her and said they either missed the LSSD election on the ballot or it was missing. She said she didn’t feel the need to bring it up.
“We’ll deal with this, but it is very unfair,” Payton said of the ruling. “These people were educated and could say, ‘the people aren’t here.’ It is that person’s responsibility.”
Jones said “justice was done” and said he believed there were just as many people who probably didn’t get to vote for Payton as didn’t get to vote for him.
“I hate it had to happen this way,” Jones said.