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HARPERS FERRY – Counting the votes made a difference after all.

Harpers Ferry has one new Town Council member and one new former council member—the outcome by a single vote after town officials counted the votes last Wednesday on four long-disputed provisional ballots. And the council change could mean a significant tilt in the teetering political balance of power in this tiny but intrigue-filled tourist town of 175 voters—not all of them legal.

Time will tell, but the political power shift could affect everything from the town’s spending priorities and committee appointments to consultants and personnel. Most prominently, the shift could jump-start the proposed big-bucks redevelopment of the storied but now dilapidated Hill Top House Hotel property that has been languishing for the past decade.

The Hill Top’s owners have introduced a second draft of plans to establish a $140 million luxury hotel on the clifftop site, a project that’s waiting to resume negotiations after being put on hold until a new council majority emerged from the election.  

That’s the new dynamic at Town Hall in Harpers Ferry since town officials—directed by a Jefferson County Circuit Court order upheld by the West Virginia Supreme Court—tallied what were found to be 15 votes marked on those four sealed provisional ballots.

Nancy Case, one of two candidates who challenged town officials to count the votes on the cast-aside provisional ballots, received three additional votes during the ballot count, enough for her to win 85 final votes and a council seat by a single vote. Charlotte Thompson, who was seated on the council before the provisional-ballot votes were counted, lost her council seat after she received no additional votes during the ballot recount. The total she received remained at 84.

Thompson was one of two council members who disregarded a legal opinion from the West Virginia Ethics Commission advising her not to participate in decisions over whether to count the provisional ballots. Those decisions could, and last Wednesday they did, determine whether she kept or lost her council position.  

“I have mixed feelings,” Case said in a prepared statement after the vote count. She said she was happy for the four town residents who cast the provisional ballots and had their votes counted in the town’s final election results.

“I am also saddened because this entire, near 14-month struggle was wholly unnecessary,” Case also added. “To outright refuse to extend any courtesy or understanding to people we all know are our neighbors and then force us all through the long and expensive court process is, quite frankly, unforgivable.”

Case, along with four others who had their council seats confirmed by Wednesday’s vote count, immediately took their oaths after the Board of Canvass meeting called to count the provisional-ballot votes.

The first council meeting Case will attend is set for Monday.

Until last week, the four provisional ballots have been contested and argued over both inside and outside courtrooms since the polling ended for the town’s last election. Since then, a 4-3 incumbent council majority held off challengers for 13 months by resisting calls to count the provisional-ballot votes.

That was until the West Virginia Supreme Court sorted through some technical legal arguments the incumbent council members made before agreeing that the votes should be counted. That was after Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Debra McLaughlin told the recalcitrant incumbents to count the votes. That was after election law experts with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office advised the incumbents to count the votes. And that was after Harpers Ferry Recorder Kevin Carden, the town’s election supervisor, and Jefferson County Deputy Clerk of Elections Nikki Painter explained why votes should be counted.

“The race for town council members was very tight. Fewer than 10 votes separated the top eight out of nine candidates,” Carden said in opening remarks at last week’s vote count held by a mix of current and previous council members as an official election Board of Canvassers. “After a long and arduous journey, we gather here today to officially accept these four provisional ballots and add them to the previously certified totals for town council candidates.”

Sheriff Pete Dougherty, wearing his badge and sidearm; Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Harvey; and an investigator with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office were on hand to observe the proceedings of the vote count.

Mayor Wayne Bishop, council members Hardy Johnson and Barbara Humes, and now former council members Thompson and Midge Flinn Yost—all of whom have resisted key negotiations over the Hill Top redevelopment—joined together to reject the provisional ballots. Their reason was that the four voters who cast the provisional ballots—including a town resident, Leah Howell, who appeared as a council candidate on the ballot after the town authorized her as eligible to run and serve on the council—were not recorded as duly registered voters in the town’s poll book during the election.

Those four voters, all of whom have Washington Street addresses, did not appear because of identical address errors made at the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles office in Kearneysville. The errors incorrectly added “West” to each voter’s Washington Street voting registration and driver’s license, mistakes that assigned them to the precinct for residents in the neighboring town of Bolivar.

For more than a year the mayor and council incumbents clung to the wording of a Secretary of State Office’s election canvassers guide to support their position not to count the provisional-ballot votes. They did so even as state election officials said their legal interpretation was wrong and state law required counting the votes. State election law requires election officials to overlook “technical errors, omissions or oversights” that would otherwise disenfranchise eligible voters, state election officials explained.

Later Bishop and the four other incumbents hired Charleston lawyers to continue to defend their decision not to count the votes, appealing their case to the Supreme Court after McLaughlin ordered the provisional votes be counted.  

Bishop did not participate or attend last week’s canvassers’ vote count. His younger daughter, Tess Bishop, a 30-year-old resident of Utah, was convicted last month of illegally voting in the town’s election. Her still anonymous votes could not be excluded from the election’s final results despite her conviction.

After the provisional-ballot vote count, Secretary of State Mac Warner issued a statement: “In West Virginia, every vote cast by a qualified and registered voter should always be counted. Unfortunately, there are those who may try to manipulate the rules to prevent that from happening. We must all remain vigilant in our resolve to keep our elections free and fair for all.”

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