By Linda Cicoira — Calling hundreds of absentee ballots cast for today’s election “suspect,” Accomack County’s Republican Party asked the circuit court to put those ballots aside and not count them until an investigation of the allegations can be completed by Commonwealth’s Attorney Spencer Morgan.
Gary C, Byler, a Virginia Beach lawyer, was hired by Wesley Edwards, chairman of the county party, to file the documents. Byler did not enter an order for the judge to sign, so the request for an injunction is in limbo, according to a court clerk.
Registrar Patricia White and the county electoral board were named as defendants in the request.
White said plans to count the ballots have not changed as she has not been ordered to do anything different.
Morgan would only say “no comment” when asked if he was investigating the ballots.
Sgt. Michelle Anaya stated the official position of the state police. “At the request of the Accomack County Commonwealth’s Attorney, the Virginia State Police has initiated an investigation into an allegation of voter fraud concerning absentee ballots.”
A letter, from the county Republican Party to Morgan, that was dated Oct. 15, was provided to the Eastern Shore Post by Edwards.
It says Debra J. Wharton, of Temperanceville, “may have” violated state code when she “appears to be filling out by-mail, absentee ballot requests for other voters, submitting those requests to the registrar, visiting the homes of those voters once their ballots have arrived, filling out the ballots, and returning the voted ballots to the registrar by mail. Applications, ballot return envelopes, and ballot security envelopes all appear to be filled out in the same hand, Ms. Wharton’s. Patti White, the general registrar for Accomack County, has all of these materials in her office in preparation for the upcoming election. I respectfully request that you investigate this complaint. Additionally, I request that you do so promptly so that any improper absentee ballots offered for this election are not cast.”
That letter was signed by Chris Marston, general counsel for the Republican Party of Virginia. Edwards said he delivered the letter to Morgan. He said he was told the investigation was turned over to the state police. A police spokesperson has not yet responded to an inquiry about the investigation.
The letter was submitted with the court request but Wharton’s name was marked out with black ink.
Wharton is the second vice-chair of the county Democratic Party. When contacted by phone, Wharton said she knew nothing about the letter or the complaint. A copy was emailed to her for comment. She was later contacted by phone again. Wharton wouldn’t come to the phone and declined to comment through someone who answered the line.
Edwards said in the congressional race, incumbent Scott Taylor, who lost to Elaine Luria, “was aware of this problem.” Edwards said the problem was in Election District 300, which he said was in Atlantic. The Virginia Department of Elections shows Atlantic as 201 and New Church as 301. In that race, Taylor took Atlantic with 452 votes compared to Luria’s 149. In New Church, the vote was 508 for Luria and 459 for Taylor.
The injunction request states “the Republican Committee is a unit of the Republican Party of Virginia. The committee represents its members and the candidates it has nominated to run in the general election held Nov. 5.”
Those running as Republican include Del. Rob Bloxom and senate hopeful Elizabeth Lankford. They are opposed by Democrats Phil Hernandez, who is vying for a seat in the House, and Sen. Lynwood Lewis.
No one else in the elections is directly associated with a political party. Morgan is running for election without opposition.
Edwards was working at the polling place in Painter Tuesday morning where he checked IDs, marked people’s names off, and gave them paper ballots. His wife, also a worker, directed people to the voting booths. When asked about Edwards working as an election official after filing the court document, White said he was an official before he filed it but that question will probably come up again later.
The injunction request admitted the ballots cannot be set aside without a court order.
Byler wrote, “As the supreme court of Virginia stated” in another court decision, “under well-established principles, the granting of an injunction is an extraordinary remedy and rests on the sound judicial discretion to be exercised upon consideration of the nature and circumstances of a particular case. When determining whether an injunction should be issued, courts weigh” if there is an “adequate remedy at law,” whether the plaintiff will suffer irreparable harm if the defendant’s actions are not enjoined, whether the harm to the defendant is excessively out of proportion to the harm suffered by the plaintiff and whether there is an effect on the public.” He said the party will “suffer immediate and irreparable harm if an injunction is not granted because once a ballot is counted, it cannot be segregated and removed from the vote totals if it is subsequently determined that it was fraudulently requested or cast.” He said harm to the other side, is “minimal” “because the defendants can move ahead with all other election processes until such time as the commonwealth’s attorney completes his investigation … minimal administrative inconvenience the defendants may suffer is far outweighed by the defendants’ statutory and constitutional obligations to enforce the laws that provide for a fair and orderly election process.”
As of Friday, the number of absentee ballots totaled: Chincoteague 65, Atlantic 35, Greenbackville 33, New Church has 208, Bloxom 21, Parksley 26, Saxis 0, Mappsville 41, Rue 124, Accomac 57, Tangier 2, Nandua 152, Bobtown 36, Melfa 34, Wachapreague 29, and Painter 75.