A strange oversight in Tuesday's Walker County Republican primary has thrown into question how close the sheriff's race is, and whether provisional ballots next week could help sheriff challenger Nick Smith of Nauvoo avoid a runoff with incumbent Sheriff Jim Underwood of Jasper.
As it stands this morning, Smith and Underwood are headed for a runoff on July 17. Smith came within a few votes of avoiding a runoff — and potentially could make those up with provisional votes next week. The actual vote count became uncertain about midnight as the Daily Mountain Eagle became aware of the situation.
Even more bizarre, some ballots overlooked were run into the machine after the official votes were released to the public, although again it was uncertain how close now Smith now is to avoiding a runoff. One report to the Daily Mountain Eagle, which could not be confirmed, had the number needed by Smith as low as six. Based on the figures released to the public earlier, Smith needed 12 votes.
According to unofficial results released to the public before overlooked ballots were run, Smith, Cordova's police chief, won 7,240 votes, or 49.92 percent, while Underwood had 6,613 votes, or 45.6 percent. A third candidate, Steven Shaver of Parrish, the director of community corrections in the county, won 649, or 4.48 percent.
To show the closeness of that vote, the margin between Smith and Underwood was 627 votes, while Shaver had 649 votes.
However, Circuit Clerk Susan Odom confirmed at midnight that 22 ballots had to be put aside in a compartment because the vote tabulation machine jammed in Union Chapel. The ballots were supposed to be run through the machine again after the polls closed, but officials forgot to run them through.
Union Chapel was the last box to report, and observers noted discussions going on stage at the Jasper Civic Center, where the final tabulations were made and announced.
Odom said 22 overlooked ballots were sent through a machine at the civic center. An observer from the company providing the tabulation machines stood by, as did Chairwoman Linda Ensor, as the ballots were run through, she said.
"That was added to the total. That narrowed it between Nick and Jim," although she did not know how much the total was narrowed. She also did not know how many provisional votes — also known as challenge votes resulting in a dispute over addresses, etc. — had to be counted a week later.
Provisional votes are always the last box counted, and the Board of Registrars will decide which provisional votes are to be accepted or rejected, Odom said. "Provisionals will be counted next Tuesday," she said. "Everyone is waiting for the provisionals to be counted to see if there is a runoff or not."
Probate Judge Rick Allison could not be reached at that hour.
Odom said, "There was nothing malicious. There was no wrong doing." She said it all amounted to problems with the machine jamming. She said polling officials did the right thing by bringing all the ballots to the civic center.
No Democrats ran for the position. However, the winner of the Republican primary will face not one but two independent candidates for sheriff on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot, Mike Cole and Mark Bell. Voters will also be allowed to cast write-in votes in the General Election.
Smith said late last night, "First and foremost, I want to thank the good Lord above. This wouldn't be possible to be where I am at without Him. Number 2, I am humbled this many people in this county believe in me, believe in my vision for a better Walker County." He said his campaign has been about making a safer place for children.
"Right now I think it will hang in the balance until those provisional ballots are counted, whether we are in a runoff or whether I pull this thing out," he said.
Smith said he promised he would be a working sheriff and he would be out on the streets, like he has during the campaign.
"I'm not afraid of a little overtime," he said.
Smith said he wanted people to pray for families who have had someone to run for office, such as the families of Underwood, Smith and Shaver, because it is rough on the families. He also encouraged supporters to get out and support him.
He also thanked several communities for their vote.
"The people of Cordova showed up and showed out for me, and I am tremendously humble for that," he said, noting they voted about 530 in the last GOP primary, while about 900 showed up Tuesday. He also said Parrish, where he also served as a police chief, was also heavily supportive.
"They know me better than anybody in this county," he said, saying he hopes he can get the rest of the county to believe in him.
Immediately after the vote was announced at the civic center, Underwood said he was "a little disappointed in the vote. I would have thought we would have done better. But there is a runoff. We'll regroup and we'll see how it goes in July." Asked for the key to the success, he said he didn't know and that he would have to study the numbers.
Underwood's latest financial filing on June 1 showed he had a negative balance of $5,698.61 after spending $1,361.78 on May 26-May 30. Smith's latest filing on June 3 showed he had an ending balance of $389.49, after spending $6,507.53 on June 2. Shaver had an ending balance of $5,059.89 after spending $1,516.19 from May 26-May 30, according to a filing on June 1.
The election capped a campaigned that has gone on for months, as the sheriff has been seeking a second four-year term. For Underwood, it has been an active period, as he dealt with a nationally reported jail break in July 2017. Twelve escaped and were later recaptured in the escape, which he said involved the use of peanut butter. As the Walker County Commission made cutbacks and demanded the sheriff take over the feeding of prisoners from the commission, Underwood initiated lawsuits against the commission. He claimed the county was required to adequately fund his office, and that his departments were short on manpower. He said the manner in which the commission wanted him to feed the prisoners is being challenged in other counties now and would be unethical.
Underwood said since taking office he had decreased crime, with burglaries and theft down by 75 percent, and he had improved the equipping of the departments, adding that his office was ahead of national averages in solving homicides.
Smith, who was known for heavily using Facebook to get out his message, said he had decreased crime in Parrish and then in Cordova as police chiefs in those cities, and that he had improved equipping in those cities. He highlighted fighting drugs in his campaign, noting the county ranked high in the state and the nation in overdose deaths. He said he had arrested 1,500 individuals for drug crimes over the years.
Underwood claimed the county was home to a top prescribing physician for years, which he said is not a coincidence with the county being a leader in opioid deaths. He also pointed to drug cartels moving in from Mexico through the South.
Smith and Shaver said they would work within their budgets for the county. Shaver said he would upgrade the security system in the jail, so multiple doors would not open at the same time, and that he would open satellite or substations across the county. He said he would improve courthouse security, using a training program so constables could be used in addition to an assigned deputy. He called for a central jail, closing municipal jails to divert spending to create a new drug task force.
The campaign was also marked by a dispute between Smith and District 3 Commissioner Ralph Williams, a retired deputy with sons in the Sheriff's Department, over the taking down of campaign signs. A week before the election, Smith and state Sen. Charles Bishop gave indications they heard Underwood would hold a raid to go after drug offenders, using older warrants, in order to gain votes. A raid took place Thursday with newer warrants, but using drug charges that went back months, even into last year. Details on the raid have not been released yet, with Underwood saying he did not want to politicize the event.
Underwood upset some officials at the last minute by running a two-page ad in the Daily Mountain Eagle on Saturday that indicated the ad was a "state of the office of sheriff" and did not run a disclaimer at the bottom that usually notes a paid political announcement. Aside for stating improvements and statistics, the ad also explained why he sued the county commission.