Vote criticized, but nothing filed

Wilkins set to take Jefferson County helm after tight runoff

While some irregularities occurred during early voting prior to Tuesday's runoff for Jefferson County judge, no formal complaints have been filed with the prosecuting attorney's office nor does the majority of the county's election commission plan to take action.

Former state legislator Henry "Hank" Wilkins IV defeated two-term Jefferson County Judge Dutch King by 121 votes Tuesday in a race that had the largest turnout of any countywide runoff election in the state. Unofficial totals show Wilkins received 5,069 votes and King received 4,948 votes.

About 18,000 people voted in the March 1 primary election, and about 11,000 voted in the runoff, said Jefferson County Election Commission Chairman Mike Adam.

No Republicans filed for the office, so Wilkins will be sworn in as county judge in January.

Wilkins denied any wrongdoing Tuesday night.

King could not be reached for comment Wednesday. His campaign chairman, Mac Bellingrath, said as far as he knows King has no immediate plans to challenge the results of the runoff.

"We respect the process and the will of the people," Bellingrath said.

"Absent of any new information, he's not given me any indication [that he would contest the results]," Bellingrath added.

Adam said Tuesday that two people -- including one from Wilkins' campaign -- in their capacity as authorized poll watchers had access to voting machines and voting records in the county clerk's office after the close of early voting Monday night.

Their actions were recorded by courthouse surveillance footage, according to Adam and fellow commissioner Stu Soffer. The campaign supporters photographed serial numbers off personal electronic ballots, or PEBs, that are used in voting machines to record votes or set up ballots.

It remained unclear Wednesday what advantage, if any, could have been achieved by such actions.

"Nothing's been officially presented to me regarding that, so I don't know that any criminal violations have occurred or what type of violations may possibly have occurred," Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Hunter said Wednesday.

Soffer said in an email sent to other election commissioners and to Hunter just after midnight Tuesday that he had viewed the surveillance video on a computer that allowed him to enlarge the images.

"Although both authorized poll workers ... were permitted next to voting machines in violation of law, it was the responsibility of the poll judge who was locking the machines to keep them away," Soffer said in his email. "In addition to the poll judge failing to discharge his duty, one poll worker is seen removing PEBs from their bag and laying them out for the poll watchers to photograph, again inappropriate.

"While both poll watchers exceeded their rights, what occurred on Monday night was essentially 'closing' the machines for the night and would be something open to the public -- only not standing next to [voting machines] in play," Soffer said.

The poll judge, identified as Sylvester Bradley, is clearly seen passing a piece of paper to one of the poll watchers, Soffer added. Bradley was suspended from participating in Tuesday's runoff election. Efforts to reach Bradley on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

The poll watchers were out of view, behind a curtain, with voting machines for a period of time, Soffer said.

The commission's next step is to verify the total number of voters who signed in at the county clerk's office and rectify that number against the public count for early voting.

"While I don't think they were back there with sufficient time to do any hanky-panky, I want to verify it so all will have confidence in the process," Soffer said.

He said he will suggest to other commissioners that those two poll workers not be allowed work again in Jefferson County.

There also were incidents caused by campaign supporters at some polling places on election day, including some people videotaping voters inside a polling site, according to Soffer.

"This was the worst election that I've had to deal with ever," said Soffer, who has been on the Jefferson County Election Commission since 2003.

He said the actions of some campaign supporters stopped short of breaking the law "but effectively served as a distraction to impair election commissioners from concentrating on other stuff."

Soffer said he did not believe the irregularities would change the outcome of the election and that he believes the election results were valid.

"In my opinion, there are no grounds to contest the results of the election," Soffer said. "You can't contest an election because of hanky-panky."

Adam also said Wednesday that he had no plans to call for a recount. The third election commissioner, Cynthia Sims, could not be reached Wednesday.

The election commission has through April 1 to certify the results of the election.

State Desk on 03/24/2016