Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

Local News

June 12, 2014

Circuit Court Judge Phillip Patton upholds disqualifications, Steward leaning against appealing court’s decision, which apparently brings Democratic Judge-Executive race to close

GLASGOW — After a bench trial Thursday regarding the Democratic primary race for Barren County judge-executive, Micheal Hale remains the apparent winner.

The trial in Barren Circuit Court centered on candidate Chris Steward’s claim that 27 mail-in absentee ballots were improperly rejected, but Circuit Judge Phillip Patton ruled Thursday that the ballots were correctly disqualified.

The ruling seems to finally bring an end to the race, which has been the subject of a recanvass and a recount since the May 20 primary.

Steward said Thursday night he’s “99 percent” certain he won’t appeal the decision.

“Unless the heavens open up and I get a voice from somebody, I’m not going to appeal,” he said. “I’ve never had that happen in 62 years, and I don’t expect it now.”

Hale earned just three votes more than his closest competitor, Bud Tarry, who requested the May 29 recanvass that resulted in no change to the election-night tally. Steward, who received 16 fewer votes than Hale, then asked for the recount and election contest, neither of which altered the original result.

The Barren County Board of Elections rejected the 27 ballots for a variety of reasons – from missing signatures and flaps erroneously detached from envelopes to four voters who died between the time they mailed their ballots and election day.

The recount of the previously counted 337 absentee ballots was Tuesday. Patton then scheduled the bench trial for the matter of the disqualified ballots.

The metal box in which the 27 ballots had been held since the election was unlocked during the trial Thursday. During her testimony, Barren County Clerk Joanne London removed the ballots in question and showed Steward’s attorney, Matt Baker, why each was disqualified.

“We didn’t have anything unusual that doesn’t happen every election,” London said.

She also testified that the board was unanimous on each decision to disqualify a ballot.

Baker argued that a person who votes absentee in person in the clerk’s office before election day could die afterward, and he didn’t think that vote would be disqualified. He also offered the scenario of a military service member casting a vote via absentee ballot but then being killed in action before election day, saying it would be troubling and a disservice to that person to not have the vote counted.

Baker referenced a 2003 case decision that says, “It is a fundamental principle that the courts will construe election statutes liberally in favor of the citizens whose right to choose their public officers is challenged.” Baker also cited another case decision that says, “when it is clear that the voter has made an honest effort to conform to the directions of the statute as to the manner of voting, although with imperfect results, the ballot should be counted if the intention of the voter can be effectuated.”

In his closing statements, Barren County Attorney Jeff Sharp, representing London and the board of elections, said some of the precedents Baker cited were in regard to write-in campaigns, where rules were unclear about whether initials or only first names were acceptable.

“If all you were looking at is voter intent, and you were to ignore all the rules … I could just go down there and take a scrap piece of paper and write, ‘I, Jeff Sharp, even though I’m a Republican, I’m voting for Chris Steward,’ and make it into a paper airplane and throw it in the clerk’s office and if it hit one of the clerks and they’d have to open it. It clearly shows my intent.”

Patton said perhaps the reason the statutes were written so strictly is that these types of ballots could be susceptible to fraud. He said he believed the board of elections and the clerk’s office had followed the rules they were supposed to and ruled that all of those 27 ballots had been appropriately disqualified, although he did agree with Baker that the scenario with the service member would be “tragic.”

Later Thursday, Patton filed his order regarding the recount and contest. He dismissed Steward’s petition with prejudice, and ordered the county clerk to proceed with certifying Hale as the Democratic nominee.

“We tried our best. We fought the good fight. It’s time for me to get back to my garden, my family, my dental practice,” Steward said at the conclusion of the trial. “I fought this fight for all the people that stood behind me so strongly during the campaign. I felt like I owed it to them to try to see this through. I’m disappointed obviously, but sometimes there are days that you’re the bug and sometimes there are days that you’re the windshield, so I accept the ruling of the court.

“There are a lot of things more important than politics. I’ll get back to my family and things that perhaps I’ve neglected during this campaign that I should have been paying more attention to, and life will go on. Probably 20, 30 years from now, people will not know and probably won’t care who was the county judge-executive of Barren County. The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”

Unless Steward changes his mind and files an appeal within the 10-day window to do so, Patton’s ruling makes Hale the winner of the Democratic primary. He will face Republican nominee David Honeycutt in the November general election.

“I am honored to be the confirmed candidate, and I look forward to getting out this summer and the fall and seeing old friends and making new ones,” Hale said.

Sharp said he was with the board of elections when they went over all the absentee ballots.

“I knew from the beginning why they rejected these ballots and I knew they were all rejected properly,” he said. “I think the judge, we just had to get to court and explain the reasons to the court for the rejections, and I think the judge made the proper ruling that they were all rejected properly.”

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