Provisionals dictate how much Smith needs to avoid runoff

By ED HOWELL
Posted 6/7/18

Sheriff candidate Nick Smith would actually need as many as 23 votes to avoid a runoff with Sheriff Jim Underwood, when factoring that as many as 35 provisional votes would have to be added to the …

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Provisionals dictate how much Smith needs to avoid runoff

Posted

Sheriff candidate Nick Smith would actually need as many as 23 votes to avoid a runoff with Sheriff Jim Underwood, when factoring that as many as 35 provisional votes would have to be added to the totals, according to a calculation method described by Walker County Probate Judge Rick Allison on Wednesday morning. 

"Nothing will be settled until we meet next Tuesday at noon to go through the provisionals to see how many will count. Not all of those will count," Walker County Republican Party Chairwoman Linda Ensor said Wednesday, the day after party primaries.  

Allison and Ensor said the provisional count will be at the Probate Judge's office courtroom, after the Walker County Board of Registrars have determined in the coming days which of those ballots will count. 

Allison and Ensor commented Wednesday on the unusual events that happened on election night at the Jasper Civic Center, which included moving the provisional ballots to the Circuit Clerk Susan Odom's office instead of the Sheriff's Office, at Ensor's insistance.

Moreover, officials confirmed that the vote totals announced and handed out to the public at the civic center Tuesday night were not the most complete unofficial results, as 22 Union Chapel ballots earlier overlooked were run through a machine after the results were announced, changing the results. Allison said one was Democratic and the rest were Republican.

Observers had already said widely that Smith needed 12 votes to avoid the runoff. After the ballots were added, Ensor said, "It appears there may be a six-vote difference" to avoid the July 17 runoff. She noted if Steven Shaver, who ran third in the balloting, gets another vote at this point, that increases the number of votes obtained to divide, making Smith need more or less. 

Ensor said she understood the county had 16 provisionals to count, although Allison later said the true number was 35.  

Meanwhile, she said Ray Capps, the representative of the Sheriff's Office, told Ensor Tuesday night he and other deputies were going to take the provisionals to the Sheriff's Office and would be locked in an evidence vault, with only one person having a key. 

"I said, 'No-no-no. That's not going to happen,'" Ensor said. "I said, 'This is the sheriff's race, and nothing needs to be in custody of the sheriff. So, Susie Odom stepped in and said, 'I have a room that only I have a key to and I believe there is enough room in there to put provisionals in.' 

"So, the Sheriff's Department already had the provisionals loaded on a vehicle that was locked. They carried the trailer and met me and (District 1 Walker County Commissioner Keith Davis) and (Democratic Party official) Shirley Mitchell and Susie, and there were three people from the Sheriff's Department. I think they were probably all investigators." 

Photos were taken of boxes with a number on it that there was no tampering. They were locked in the closet, and the Sheriff's Department put crime scene tape on the closet that is illegal to be removed by unauthorized people, she said. Officials put initials around the door, and a security camera is watching the door. 

She said the provisionals placed in the closet were from the entire election, not just the Union Chapel box. 

The three sheriff candidates were not involved in those discussions nor actions, she said.

In the Union Chapel situation, Ensor said the machine jammed and she sent a representative to the scene. 

Allison said the event happened about 4:30 p.m. and he went to the site, adding about four precincts that day where ballots hung on the tray, causing backup and jams. Those ballots are placed in a compartment in the machine, so that the ballots can be fed after the polls close at 7 p.m.

Ensor said the problem was repaired, but when poll workers tabulated the votes for the day, they forgot to run the ballots held since the jamming in a compartment. The workers are not allowed to feed in more ballots after ballots have been totalled earlier.  

That night, the overlooked ballots were brought in a clear bag. 

At first, officials thought they would have to count the ballots by hands, but the representative from Election Systems & Software (ES&S), which provides the machines, suggested the ballots could be run through a spare machine that Allison said he keeps. Once that happened, the totals were added to that precinct. 

Smith had 304 votes afterward in Union Chapel, while Underwood had 261. Overall in the race, Smith had 7,258, or 49.97 percent of the votes, while Underwood had 6,617 votes, or 45.56 percent. Shaver had 649 votes or 4.47 percent. Smith gained 18 votes, while Underwood gained four. 

Before the votes were added, the unofficial count was Smith, with 7,240 votes, or 49.92 percent; Underwood with 6,613 votes, or 45.6 percent; and Shaver with 649, or 4.48 percent. 

Allison said both party chairmen were consulted about the situation. 

"As party chairman, I was aware of what was going on and I feel comfortable with it," Ensor said, added she is very comfortable with the poll workers. She said the county's poll workers are honest and try to do a good job. 

"Things happen. Sometimes it doesn't take but a touch of a button to mess it up," she said. 

She did not know why the first set of numbers were released and then the overlooked ballots were run to change the numbers, other than she speculated officials did not want to keep people waiting. 

Asked about that, Allison said officials remind people the figures are always unofficial that night. "We would have had to count and manually add those, with everyone sitting there wanting results. So you give them what you have at the time," he said, saying otherwise the process would have ended later. The full count was concluded about 10:30 p.m.

Allison nsaid officials tried to do the count in the most transparent way it knew how. 

Ensor said the provisionals votes are held when people don't have the proper ID or if they have moved without alerting the registrars, or other reasons that would put the vote in dispute. They are allowed to vote, and then are given time to bring in needed paperwork to the Board of Registrars, such as a needed ID. 

Allison said the totals are unofficial for a week until provisionals are counted. If one determines the provisional should not count, no one ever finds out how the votes went in that ballot because the envelope is not opened. 

Provisionals many times mean someone is not on the poll book for that precinct, Allison said. If someone has moved but not notified registrars, they go to the new polling place, they vote provisional and update their information, and can usually be counted if they are a registered voter in the county who voted where they should have voted.

Allison said the situation is different from old challenge ballots because in the old days the ballot was counted and then taken off if successfully challenged. A new-style provisional is not counted until it is proven it can count. 

The information to determine the validity of the provisional ballots was likely delivered by the Sheriff's Office to the Board of Registrars Wednesday, as called for by law, Allison said, saying that is different from the ballots in Odom's office. That information stayed overnight at the Sheriff's Department. 

"It is the packet that has the roster where the person signed in to vote .... It has all their information and why they cast that ballot. The Board of Registrars never handles the ballot. They are just looking at information that is in an envelope," he said.

The information is "secured with the information because he is the returning officer," although with the election underway, Capps was standing in for the sheriff. 

He noted the weeklong wait to count the provisionals. Allison said if someone didn't have ID, for example, the voter would have until Friday to provide the ID to the registrars.

"There are different steps for different reasons," he said. 

With the registrars determining the validity of each provisional in advance — and writing down why each does or doesn't count — the information from the registrars is opened Tuesday and ballots are placed in stacks to show they have been rejected or accepted. 

"The PB2 envelop has the voter's name on it, so we know that ballot should count," Allison said. "We open that envelop. The ballot is still sealed in another envelope and it is placed over here. You still don't know how they voted. Then everyone in that precinct is put over there together before you ever open that. You don't know whose ballot that is unless there is just one, but we don't have time to keep up with that. We try to keep their vote private, because it is a private process." 

When a provisional is rejected, the outside envelope is never opened up, he said. 

Allison on Wednesday released a new vote summary and results broken down by beats. Ensor said the beat results are normally released the day after the election in the county. 

As far as how many votes Smith needs, Allison, who did not run this year for re-election, noted approved provisionals needed to be added to the 14,524 votes listed already for the candidates. That number is then divided in half and one vote is added to determine the vote needed to avoid a runoff. The 190 undervotes recorded would not be added as a factor. 

If no provisionals were added, Smith would only need five votes to avoid a runoff. If all 35 were added, Smith would need 23 more votes to not go into a runoff. The numbers could fluctuate in between, depending on how many provisionals are rejected or even if a provisional didn't vote for sheriff at all.