Election official: Improper votes shouldn’t void results

Leave it to the judge, panel chairman Matthews says
Dec. 30, 2012 @ 11:00 AM

In his deposition for the contest of election for the Pigeon Forge liquor by the drink referendum, the chairman of the Sevier County Election Commission indicates he believes the results should not be overturned, even after acknowledging that around 300 votes appear to have been cast improperly.

The referendum passed in the Nov. 6 election on a 1,232 to 1,132 tally. Questions arose immediately, however, over whether some ballots were cast by people who should not have been allowed to vote.

Election Commission Chairman J.B. Matthews acknowledges in his sworn testimony that it appears election workers allowed improper votes, but maintains he doesn’t believe that should cause the vote to be overturned.

“You believe the ballot ought to stand even with those facts? Is that what you’re telling me?” an attorney asks Matthews during the deposition.

“I think the ballot ought to stand as presented, yes,” Matthews answers.

“Why should it stand?”

“Just to protect the integrity of some of the voters.”

“If you take out the illegal votes and you can’t tell whether it passed or failed, why should it stand?”

“Leave that up to the judge,” Matthews replies.

“But your opinion is it should stand?”

“Roger.”

By the time the election commission certified the margin of victory, several voters had filed formal complaints. On the day the commission certified the vote, a representative of the group that had opposed the referendum noted there were 303 votes that came from people the election commission couldn’t certify were eligible to take part in the municipal election.

Within a few days, the Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge (CCCPF) — the group formed to campaign against approval of the measure — filed a contest of election.

The group must prove to Chancellor Telford Forgety that the results of the election would be rendered “incurably uncertain” based on improper procedures. State election officials have indicated that typically means the plaintiffs must show the number of questionable votes exceed the margin of victory.

Court documents and documents obtained by The Mountain Press indicate the number of questionable votes was trimmed at some point from 303 to 289.

Matthews says Pigeon Forge businessman Jess Davis, the newly appointed chairman of CCCPF, called him to try to get Matthews to agree to void the election, but Matthews, in his testimony, maintains he didn’t agree to do so. In the deposition Matthews evades directly answering a question about his own preference on the issue, noting he couldn’t vote on the Pigeon Forge referendum, but says he voted against a similar measure in Sevierville.

He acknowledges the workers at the Pigeon Forge City Hall voting precinct failed to do their job properly, but says he believes they merely made mistakes and didn’t intend to allow improper votes.

The depositions of Matthews, administrator of elections Ronee Flynn and some election workers were added to the file in Chancery Court on Friday.

Flynn, in her testimony, also acknowledged there were errors, and says there are 289 votes that appear to have come from ineligible voters.

She indicates there’s no way to determine whether those voters were for or against the ballot. “It’s all in there together now,” she says.

She also goes into detail on the regulations governing nonresident property owners. Under the Pigeon Forge regulations, nonresident property owners are allowed to vote if they register by bringing a deed to the election commission. Up to two nonresident owners are allowed to vote on any single piece of property.

CCCPF maintains that some of the people who voted as nonresident property owners might have done so improperly.

The election commission tries to check records every two years to eliminate people who have registered previously but sold property in the meantime, she said. But like other voters, they can register up to 30 days ahead of the election. To register, they just need a certified copy of a deed showing they own an interest in the property.

While the election commission’s website at one point said those property owners had to own 50 percent interest in land, Flynn said that didn’t apply in the Pigeon Forge election and had been removed from the site.

She said she had checked on some of the property owners who registered ahead of the Nov. 6 election, including Knoxville businessman Bob McManus, one of the developers of The Island project in Pigeon forge.

She said she wasn’t sure if it would be legal for a property owner to convey a 1 percent interest in a piece of property just before the election, and then to retake that interest after the election without paying for it — something that deeds indicate happened in Pigeon Forge during the referendum.

Other depositions added to the file Friday came from election workers at the City Hall voting precinct. One, Judy Harrell, acknowledges she is the aunt of Ken Maples, chairman of Forging Ahead, the group that campaigned in favor of the referendum. She says she did not talk to Maples about how to do her job on election day.

Another worker, Mary Louise Beck, said in her deposition that Harrell had told her to let everyone vote in the referendum who came to her table to sign in, regardless of whether they lived in Pigeon Forge or owned property there. Harrell said that advice was given to her by another election official, Sarah Ownby.

Owbny, in her deposition, indicates she told workers at the precinct they should let the people on one of three rosters used in the election vote on the referendum, regardless of whether their information indicated they were from Pigeon Forge or from outside the city.

She also indicates that she is certain that improper votes were allowed, and that the election should be voided.

Betty Baker, who was an officer at the precinct, and who acknowledges she was in charge of everything at that location, said they had an issue with one poll worker who was telling voters to push a particular button. She said she was told the worker, a man from Gatlinburg whose name she said she couldn’t recall, was telling some voters to push a particular button on the voting machine. However, she said she didn’t know which button he was indicated, nor which of the elections was on the screen when he told them that. The worker, who hadn’t worked at that precinct before, said he hadn’t been telling voters that.

She said she continued to work for the rest of the day and was not told of any similar issues with him or anyone else.

Baker said she didn’t believe the election was flawed, but said it was a “bad time” to have the liquor issue on the ballot. “It should never have been on a presidential election,” she said, “because that’s the busiest election you have. Then you add that issue, and I highly resented that happening. I just think that issue needed its own election.”

Officials and workers have indicated much of the confusion at the precinct arose because they had voters coming in from inside and outside Pigeon Forge to vote in the general election going on that day, and were expected to sort those voters so that people living in Pigeon Forge got to vote on the general election and the referendum, while property owners only voted on the referendum and other people who lived in the voting precinct but outside the city only voted in the general election.

n jfarrell@themountainpress.com