BAMBERG – The winner of a council seat from the Feb. 12 municipal election in Denmark remains in dispute, with a runoff election possible.
The election featured five candidates for three seats on Denmark City Council, with voting conducted at-large. The two candidates receiving fewest votes, Letitia Dowling and the Rev. Dr. Chris Murray, on Feb. 14 formally protested the election following certification of results that morning by the Bamberg County Voter Registration and Election Commission.
They were granted a hearing before the commission Feb. 15, and, as a result, a runoff election for Feb. 26 was ordered between incumbent Hope Long Weldon and Dowling, who were separated by one vote in the official count. Murray lost his appeal.
Incumbent Weldon then filed an appeal of the commission’s ruling, delaying any runoff election.
A hearing on Weldon's appeal is scheduled for 2 p.m. March 6 in the courtroom on the second floor of the Barnwell County Courthouse at 141 Main St. in Barnwell.
Melinda Johnson, director of voter registration and the elections for Bamberg County, said via email Tuesday, “An appeal was filed today, therefore, there will not be a runoff election at this time.”
Norma Jett, attorney for the Bamberg County Registration and Election Commission, confirmed Wednesday via email that Weldon filed an appeal of the decision to hold a runoff.
Jett summarized what has happened with the Denmark election after the certification process: “On February 15, 2019, the Election Commission, sitting as the Board of Canvassers, heard the protests of Letitia Dowling and C.A. Murray from the Denmark Municipal Election held February 12, 2019.”
“The Board granted the protest of Ms. Dowling and directed a runoff election between Ms. Dowling and Hope Long Weldon. The Board denied the protest of Mr. Murray. The election of Ms. Bervay Carter and Mr. Calvin Odom are unaffected by the protest,” Jett stated.
Weldon was asked about the runoff during the Denmark council meeting Tuesday evening and declined comment.
In addressing her protest, Dowling said, "They (the Bamberg County Voter Registration and Election Commission) voted 5 to 1 to allow a runoff election between me and Weldon. I won my protest."
"They all voted to uphold results and ruled against Mr. Murray's protest," she said.
According to an Order and Notice of Right to Appeal "The protestant, Letitia Dowling, lost the election to Hope Long Weldon by one vote, and has proved that one, and perhaps, two provisional votes were improperly rejected.”
"Therefore, her protest should be granted, and a runoff election held between Weldon and Dowling," the order states.
"The protestant, C.A. Murray, lost the election to Hope Long Weldon (the successful candidate with the least votes) by twenty-four votes,” according to the order. "He did not present sufficient evidence and testimony to call twenty-four votes into question, and his protest should be denied."
Murray was contacted multiple times over several days for comment but did not reply.
Dowling and Murray were asked for comment after the certification meeting on Feb. 14. Murray submitted his notice of hearing of election protest as his comment.
According to the document, Dowling and Murray filed by hand-delivery a protest of the election on Feb. 14, and the Bamberg County Registration and Election Commission held a hearing about the protests on Feb. 15.
Certification for the City of Denmark council election was completed by the commission on Feb. 14, with a recount held because candidate Dowling and incumbent Weldon were just one vote apart.
According to the official results from the recount, Weldon had 127 votes and Dowling had 126. The recounted votes showed the same results from late on Feb. 12.
The official results showed incumbent Odom with 155 votes, incumbent Carter with 148 and Murray with 103, the same as results from election night. There was one write-in for Brettica Moody.
The commission discussed the provisional ballots at the certification meeting on Feb. 15.
Patsy Blume of the commission said one provisional ballot was from a citizen who for five years listed his address as outside of Denmark’s city limits and who lives in the city limits of Denmark now but never changed his address. “You have up to 30 days to notify the election commission if you change from a town or to another precinct,” she said.
Blume said, after reading from the provisional ballot envelope, that the citizen did not come to the provisional ballot hearing (no one answered to the name listed when called at the meeting) and his provisional ballot would not be counted.
Blume said another provisional ballot from the East Denmark precinct offered no explanation on the form provided as to why the voter needed special provisions. That individual also was not present at the certification and did not answer when called. That provisional ballot was not counted.
Dowling said, after results were given, that the notice given out after provisional ballots were turned in was unclear as to whether a voter with such a ballot should attend the count of said ballots. She said the statement, “You may be present at the hearing and present evidence,” does not mean that the submitter of the provisional ballot has to be present.
According to a Notice of Hearing on Provisional Ballots from the South Carolina Election Commission:
“The County Election Commission will hold a hearing to determine whether your provisional ballot will count. If you are the challenged voter:
- You are entitled to be present at this hearing.
- You are entitled to be represented by legal counsel and to present evidence.
- If you forgot to bring your Photo ID to the polling place, you must show your Photo ID to the county election commission no later than the time of the provisional ballot hearing for your vote to count.
- If you did not have a Photo ID because you suffer from a reasonable impediment and you completed the affidavit, your vote will count unless the election commission has grounds to believe your affidavit is false.
If you are the challenger:
- You may be present at the hearing and present evidence.
- Prior to the hearing, you may present written evidence to the county election commission.
- If you do none of these to support the challenge, the ballot will be counted.”
After the results were announced, Dowling also said poll workers may have made suggestions to voters that they pick three candidates for whom to vote when they could have chosen to vote for just one person of the five on the ballot.
“If I am coerced to do three, then results are skewed. … I do feel like that is directing a vote,” Dowling said.
Murray said materials at the polling place stated to vote for three and that he agreed with Dowling.
Blume said Dowling and Murray could be invited back for a hearing for their contesting of the election.
Blume called the commission’s attorney during the meeting and reported back that the candidates would need to seek legal counsel to contest the election.
Weldon did not make comments during or after the certification meeting. No other incumbents were present.
All the incumbents were present at the protest hearing on Friday, according to paperwork sent to The T&D.
According to the Order and Notice of Right to appeal paperwork sent to the T&D from the hearing on Friday, "There exists a difference of opinion between the commission members whether either or both of these (provisional votes) should be counted. As the difference in votes between successful candidate Hope Long Weldon (127 votes) and Protestant Letitia Dowling (126 votes) is sufficient to call into question the election result, the Board has decided, by a six to one majority, to uphold the protest of Letitia Dowling and require a runoff election between Ms. Weldon and Ms. Dowling."