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Harpers Ferry finally sees an end to election debacle

By Staff | Aug 7, 2020

Harpers Ferry Town Recorder Kevin Carden, center, receives the four provisional ballots from Officer Ben Williams. The ballots had been in the custody of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office from Nov. 2019 until last Wednesday, when the final court-ordered count took place. Toni Milbourne

HARPERS FERRY – After more than a year, four provisional votes in Harpers Ferry were counted, causing a one-person change in the makeup of the town council.

Nancy Singleton Case, one of two candidates who challenged the refusal of the town’s canvassing board to count the provisional votes, was sworn in at the close of the special meeting, as 19-year council member Charlotte Thompson lost the seat.

Always a close race, the final tally of the votes continued in that vein, with less than 10 votes separating the top vote-getter from the bottom. When the four ballots were added, the final results revealed that Barbara Humes had received 92 votes; Jay Premack had received 90 votes; Christian Pechuekonis had received 88 votes; Hardwick Johnson had received 86 votes and Case had received 85 votes. Thompson and Deborah McGee, who was the second party in the filing for a recount, both received 84 votes.

At the start of the meeting, held at the Mather Training Center in Harpers Ferry, to accommodate social distancing, the ballots were brought in by members of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. The ballots had been in the possession of the sheriff since Nov. 2019, due to concern about Harpers Ferry Town Hall’s security.

Town Recorder Kevin Carden led the recount meeting in the absence of Mayor Wayne Bishop, who was out of town.

“We gather today to accept four provisional ballots,” Carden said. “Only those four are to be counted, with no deliberation except for how it pertains to those four.”

Following the June 2019 municipal election, a total of six provisional ballots had been left uncounted; however, two of those were not part of the court battle that ensued over the following months.

The contention in the election regarding the four ballots arose because the names of voters Linda McCarty, George McCarty, Adam Hutton and Leah Howell, were not in the Harpers Ferry poll book. An error by the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles placed their names in the Bolivar poll book. Rather than accepting the error and approving the votes, members of the Harpers Ferry canvassing board and a later tribunal refused to count them.

Circuit Court Judge Debra McLaughlin then ruled the votes should be counted. However, the case was subsequently filed with the West Virginia State Supreme Court. In its ruling, the High Court ruled in favor of the voters, sending the issue back to the Circuit Court, where McLaughlin issued the final order leading to last week’s recount.

“I am happy for Linda and Mac McCarty, Leah Howell and Adam Hutton because their voices, in their ballots, have finally been heard,” Case said in a prepared statement. “I am also saddened because this entire near 14-month struggle was wholly unnecessary. 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.”

“I wish everyone the best,” Thompson said, mentioning she plans to continue to remain active in town affairs.

As Case takes a seat at the council table, many wonder about the Hilltop Hotel project’s future. Many votes on the project have been close, and a new voice on the council could cause issues to be decided differently.

A question could be posed, however, as to whether Case should recuse from votes on the hotel project should they come back before the council, because owners of the project contributed funds to Case’s legal battle for the election. In addition, the project now falls into the realm of the West Virginia Economic Development Office as a potential project the state will oversee, removing the town from much of the decision-making should a move be made in rebuilding the hotel.