Poll worker's testimony: Nonresidents allowed to vote in referendum
The legal showdown over Pigeon Forge’s liquor-by-the-drink referendum will be heard by Chancellor Telford Forgety in January, but depositions filed in Sevier County Chancery Court already paint a picture of how some ineligible voters could have wound up casting ballots on that issue.
Forgety set the trial for Jan. 10, and court officials don’t expect he will hear any related matters before that date.
But attorneys started taking depositions (sworn testimony) last week, and transcripts of those proceedings have been filed with the court. In them, a registrar at the Pigeon Forge precinct that day says she was instructed to let everyone who was on her roster vote in the referendum, regardless of whether they lived in the city.
Election officials have said they believed there could have been some confusion created by the fact that voters who live outside the city had to come to the Pigeon Forge polling place to vote in the general election on Nov. 6, but should not have been allowed to vote in the referendum.
To avoid that, the registrars — the workers who would take the identification from a voter and confirm the voter’s address matched their voter information —were supposed to use a pink highlighter to mark slips of paper they handed to the voter.
The voter took the slip to the machine operators, who would look for the pink highlighter marks to see whether they should include the referendum on that voter’s ballot.
Some of the registrars deposed last week indicated they attended a training session before the election, and were told that’s how they should proceed.
But Mary Louise Beck testified she missed the training session, and followed advice given that morning around the time polls opened.
“I was told that whoever came to my table, if their name was on my roster, they got to vote on the referendum,” she said, regardless of their address as shown on her printout. “So from that point on I marked everybody with a pink magic marker, or pink highlighter, and I put the pink highlighter on the little piece of paper.”
Beck said another official, Judy Harrell, told her to do that. If Harrell has been deposed, the transcript has not been entered in the record.
Court filings show another registrar told attorneys she heard someone giving that same advice, but that registrar ignored it and continued marking people who lived in Pigeon Forge to vote in the referendum and leaving the mark off the slips for people who lived outside the city.
The contest of election was filed by Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge (CCCPF), the group that opposed liquor in the 2011 and 2012 referendums. CCCPF must prove there were enough questionable votes in the election to create “incurable uncertainty” as to the outcome. The measure was approved by a count of 1,232 to 1,132.
The lawsuit claims that vote total includes 303 votes that did not come from people who election officials can document were eligible to vote on the referendum. Officials indicate the election commission has since accounted for 14 votes, bringing that total down to 289.
State election officials have indicated that contests of elections often come down to whether the plaintiffs can show that the number of questionable votes exceed the margin of victory. It isn’t possible for officials to say which way the 289 voters in question cast their votes.
“There’s still a number of unaccounted for votes that exceed the margin of victory,” attorney Lewis Howard Jr., who is representing CCCPF, said Friday.
“The people that have testified, either poll workers or people on behalf of election commission have acknowledged there are a number of illegal votes and proper procedures were not followed to ensure only Pigeon Forge voters (participated),” Howard said.
The complaint also questions the eligibility of some people who voted as property owners, noting in some cases more than two people appeared to have voted using the same property, which would violate the law.
The court documents indicate there were some additional observers at the first day of depositions. An attorney retained by Forging Ahead, the group that campaigned for the referendum, attended the depositions despite protests from CCCPF’s attorney, Howard. At the time, Forging Ahead had no legal standing as a party in the lawsuit — they weren’t named as defendants. However, court officials confirmed Friday that Forging Ahead filed paperwork that could allow it to join the proceeding as a party affected by the complaint.
“Forging Ahead has retained legal counsel to represent its standing in the Pigeon Forge liquor by the drink referendum as well as the vote outcome,” chairman Ken Maples said in prepared remarks. “We believe the referendum supporters and voters deserve representation and protection in this referendum process and vote.”
Pigeon Forge Commissioner Randal Robinson, himself the target of a subpoena from the Election Commission, also sat in on the depositions that day.
Attorneys resumed deposing witnesses this week, and indicated they could be looking for testimony from other individuals ahead of the trial.
In the meantime, some local restaurants obtained licenses to sell liquor by the drink through the state and have started serving. It isn’t yet clear what it would mean for those businesses if the election result is overturned; officials with the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission said they could retain their licenses unless Forgety addresses that matter in a ruling.