Porterdale election under investigation

PORTERDALE -- The Elections Division of the Secretary of State's Office is investigating a complaint filed by Mayor Bobby Hamby alleging illegal handling of ballots during Porterdale's Nov. 8 Municipal Election.

The complaint, dated Nov. 14, states that a poll watcher handled ballots during tabulation.

When contacted by the Citizen, Hamby said a poll watcher, who was at the tabulation on behalf of mayor-elect Arline Chapman, volunteered to help Elections Superintendent Judy Johnson, also the city clerk, by handing her the ballots while she read the results aloud.

A poll watcher is a representative of a candidate, political party or civic organization who observes the conduct of elections and is not a poll worker.

Hamby said he was standing outside talking with supporters when several people notified him they were leaving because the poll watcher was handling ballots. Hamby said he then looked inside and witnessed the poll watcher handing ballots to Johnson.

"I thought about it for several days. A couple of people contacted me and said if I didn't report it, they were. I contacted an attorney who advised me that with my being mayor and having knowledge of it, it was my duty to report it," Hamby said. "I don't think there was anything malicious about it. I think he offered to help, but it never should have taken place."

Chapman, who resigned her Post 3 council seat to run for mayor, beat Hamby by a vote of 128 to 83. Hamby said he is not challenging those results but trying to protect himself against any liability as mayor.

"I wasn't trying to contest the outcome of the vote," Hamby said. "I don't think any misconduct took place during the counts of the vote. But it was not proper and it was also not legal, from what I understand."

He added that, "The only thing I want out of it is to make sure everybody in the future has knowledge so something like this doesn't happen again."

Johnson said the city has been notified of the complaint by the Secretary of State's Office and is cooperating fully with the investigation.

"Once the outcome has been determined we will make that available to the public. We have nothing to hide. We want transparency," she said.

Johnson said the poll watcher offered his assistance to help avoid confusion when ballots were being tabulated. Porterdale uses a paper ballot system, and Johnson calls out each vote for each race while poll workers do tabulations. Ballots must be recounted to ensure accuracy in the totals, she said. The mayor's race totals were confirmed after a third count, but races for Post 1 and Post 2 city council seats still had different totals on each count.

Johnson said she began to call out those votes for a fourth time when she was interrupted by poll workers who asked her to repeat some information she had stated earlier.

"I got confused about whether the (ballot) in my hand had been announced or not so the decision was made to start over again," she said. At that point, the poll watcher volunteered to hold the ballots and hand them one-by-one to Johnson to announce.

"There was never a question of who won. It was a question of what was the exact number," she said, noting that the mayor's race was not being tabulated at the time Chapman's poll watcher was handing her the ballots.

"He offered to hand me the ballots so I could focus on calling out the names. I thought it was protecting the count board. The problem is that he physically put his hand on the ballot," Johnson said.

"I didn't see it as a violation at the time, going through a fourth or fifth count, but I see it as a violation now ... Now I certainly know better and will certainly train each of our poll workers as to what we can and can't do. But that can't be an excuse because, bottom line, I am responsible," she said.

This is Johnson's first time serving as elections superintendent.

A spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office would not reveal the process for investigating election complaints and said there is no timeline to arrive at a decision.

"The next step is to present the findings of the investigation at a meeting of the state election board that makes a determination on what to do with the case and they have numerous options," said Spokesman Matt Carrothers.