HARPERS FERRY – The West Virginia Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral legal arguments Tuesday morning over whether the votes on four provisional ballots cast during the town’s municipal election last June should be counted.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments over an appeal filed by four current and former Harpers Ferry Town Council members challenging a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge’s order requiring the votes marked on the contested ballots be counted. Whether the votes on the contested ballots are counted could recast the current makeup of the five-member council and break a 4-3 voting block including Mayor Wayne Bishop that frequently dictates major town decisions.
Six town residents have a mathematical chance of either taking over or retaining a seat on the town’s five-member council if all of the votes on each ballot are counted.
Continuing 11 months of election appeals, hearings and court challenges, the Supreme Court is positioned to review technical legal issues involving Judge Debra McLaughlin’s decision directing town officials to count the votes on the provisional ballots.
Clerical voting registration errors made at the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles office in Kearneysville caused four Harpers Ferry residents not to appear in the town’s polling book of validly registered voters used on Election Day. One of those town residents was certified to run as a council candidate in the election.
The current and former town officials challenging McLaughlin’s decision to count the provisional ballots—including two current council members, Hardwick “Hardy” Johnson and Charlotte Thompson, who could potentially lose their positions if multiple votes allowed on contested ballots are incorporated into the final election results—contend they properly followed guidelines issued by the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office to reject the provisional ballots.
However, Secretary of State Mac Warner, West Virginia’s highest election official, has filed court briefs stating that the rejected provisional ballots should be accepted.
Warner has written that state law expressly requires election officials to overlook such clerical errors that would deny the votes of otherwise valid voters.
The Supreme Court usually issues opinions in cases during the same term in which an argument is held, explained Jennifer Bundy, the court’s public information officer. The court’s current term ends June 17.
While the Supreme Court is expected to decide legal issues raised on appeal, lawyers representing the town have suggested they might raise other legal questions—such as whether the provisional ballots were sufficiently protected from possible tampering—that could delay a final resolution.
All of Harpers Ferry’s elected officials serve two-year terms.
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