Ballot error throws District 2 election results into question

Aug 23, 2012 By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese to meet with canvassing board to discuss a course of action.

An error discovered in the Fremont County Commission District 2 primary election could change the outcome of the race that unofficially put the winner on top by a slim 20-vote margin.

Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese anticipated meeting with the canvassing board at 1 p.m. Thursday in Lander to discuss the 30 voters who should not have cast ballots in the District 2 race.

"They got ballots that had the commissioners' race on it, and they should not have gotten those ballots." Freese said. "They shouldn't have voted on commissioners, in other words."

Freese said the error happened only in the 18-1 Big Bend precinct and with the District 2 race.

"It's fine everywhere else," she said. "Every other race has not been affected. This is the only one."

The 30 illegal ballots could affect whether incumbent Dennis Christensen or challenger Larry Allen is the victor.

Unofficial results from Tuesday's primary put Christensen on top with 541 votes compared to Allen's 521. Challengers Tim Salazar received 481 votes and Richard Denke earned 147 in the race, according to initial results.

Freese said she would provide the canvassing board members with a recommended course of action, but it would ultimately be their decision.

"They are their own people, and if they vote against me we'll be doing something else," Freese said.

Wyoming statutes governing elections and recounts for the canvassing board provide guidance in such cases.

"If a canvassing board is unable to determine which candidate has been elected or nominated, the canvassing board shall declare the election to be null and void as to that office, and the county clerk shall call a special election to make a decision," according to statutes.

Christensen and Allen said they are waiting to hear the board's decision.

"I think it's an opportunity for us to get another run at it," Allen said. "I'm excited for it. It was awful close losing by 20 votes. It's pretty disheartening."

Allen said he hopes to get a chance to gain additional support for this campaign.

"I'm looking forward to getting back into it again, hopefully earn some more votes," he said. "I don't think people thought I'd come as close as I did, and maybe they will be more encouraged."

Christensen said a special

election for the voters in the precinct could be the remedy.

"My understanding is it's a mail ballot, and it has to be done within three weeks," he said.

Christensen blamed the error on complications resulting from the new Fremont County commission districts that were created by federal litigation.

"I think it goes with the territory of redistricting. I think not only are the voters confused, so are the (election) judges. People know where they live, but we don't have any idea where the lines are drawn," he said.

"The staff, the judges she gets, the election help -- they're at the mercy of how the maps are drawn and it's really hard to follow. It was so much easier when you were a county resident, you were eligible to vote," he said.

Federal courts supported the creation of commission districts in Fremont County to give American Indians on the Wind River Indian Reservation an opportunity to elect their candidate of choice in the race.

"We've talked about this a zillion times during all of our litigation with our commission districts," Freese said about potential errors and confusion with precincts split by the new boundaries. "These are the kinds of things that I worry about."

Freese said that before the polls closed Tuesday, election judges told her they had realized an error with some voters. "It was the ballot that they should have gotten was not given to them," she said.

The error surfaced at about 3:30 p.m. and voters in the precinct received the correct ballots afterward, Freese said.

"Our election judges do a great job," she said. "I can appreciate that they made an error. They feel horrible that they made an error."

Although Freese and her staff know which specific voters received incorrect ballots in the election, they cannot identify the ballots.

"There is no markings on that ballot that tells us who that is," Freese said. "It's not fair to call them up and tell them, 'Who did you vote for so I can make this right?'"

Unofficial results from Tuesday's primary in the 18-1 precinct show 115 votes for Christensen compared to 81 for Allen, 66 for Salazar and 21 for Denke.

Freese plans to do additional training for election judges before the Nov. 6 general election.

"It could happen again in the general because we have fire districts and cemetery districts and more splits," she said.

Freese asked voters to pay attention to their sample ballots sent in the mail before the election to know the specific races on them.

"I remind voters to maybe know where they're voting, know a little bit about what should be on their ballot," she said. "We send samples to them. Hang on to them."

Voters should question election judges if they think their ballot is wrong, she said.

"The sooner we figure out something, the better," she said.

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