Failure to submit all required campaign expense reports prior to a filing deadline should not keep two Kanawha County magistrate candidates from being certified as victors in the June 9 primary election.
That was the ruling made on Wednesday by the Kanawha County Commission, meeting in its post-election role as the county’s Board of Canvassers, in races in which former magistrate Ward Harshbarger and political newcomer Mike Ferrell outpolled their opponents.
Harshbarger tallied 21,410 votes, ending a bid by incumbent Hollis Lewis, who drew 17,378, to serve a full term after being appointed to complete a term vacated by veteran Magistrate Kim Aaron. Ferrell received nearly 6,000 more votes than his incumbent opponent, former Dunbar police chief and Kanawha County Sheriff’s deputy Jess Bailes, who collected 15,694.
While both Ferrell and Harshbarger admitted they did not complete their final pre-election financial reports in time to meet the official deadline, both had completed and submitted the paperwork since the voting ended.
“We researched the case law carefully,” said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper, relying mainly on a 1926 state Supreme Court opinion. That opinion, Carper said, made it evident that a canvassing board lacks the authority to block the election of a winning candidate for failing to file such reports in a complete or timely manner.
“There should be a clear and substantial penalty for failing to file financial statements, and the Kanawha County Commission will make its establishment of one our top legislative priorities,” Carper said. “Financial disclosure is one of the few things that protects the integrity of an election.”
The commission granted lawyers representing Bailes and Lewis the right to file briefs arguing their positions in the file certifying the election, which would become official on July 9, if the briefs fail to prompt a change of mind from the commissioners.
In another election matter, a recount of votes for Ward One’s seat on St. Albans City Council failed to change the outcome of that race. The recount matched the initial tally, in which Robert Keiffer edged out Judy Watkins Rimmey by one vote — 141 to 140.
The June primary election, with its COVID-19 prompted mail-in component, “cost $150,000 more than the last presidential primary,” according to Carper, and may well end up costing more than $500,000.
Payments to poll workers so far have totaled more than $215,000, while more than $250,000 has been paid for postage and other expenses.
“We knew keeping our voters safe and allowing them to vote by mail would be an additional cost,” Carper said, “but saving lives is priceless.” Those who “predicted fraud, confusion and a problem-ridden election were wrong,” he said.
Carper said he expected the county to be reimbursed for some of the COVID-19-related costs from federal funds.