SALYERSVILLE - A ruling is pending at press time in the Magoffin County election contest trial, which wrapped up defense testimony on Monday, February 9.
The case began when John Montgomery, republican candidate for Magoffin County judge executive who lost by 28 votes to incumbent Dr. Charles Hardin, filed an election contest suit on Thursday, December 4, 2014.
The verified petition filed on December 4 named Magoffin County Clerk Renee Arnett-Shepherd, Sheriff Carson Montgomery, Susie Salyer and Justin Williams in their official capacities as members of the Magoffin County Board of Elections, as well as Hardin. On Election Day, Lisa Montgomery-Cheek did serve as a Magoffin County Sheriff’s Office representative since Sheriff Montgomery was a candidate on the November 4 ballot.
The suit states that at least 261 ballots cast and counted for Hardin in the November 4 election allegedly violated election laws.
While John Montgomery’s attorney, Mark Flores with Frost Brown and Todd, called witnesses several days last week, this week, on Monday, February 9, the Magoffin County Board of Elections’ attorney, Jason Nemes, with Fultz Maddox Hovious & Dickens PLC, called witnesses for the defense.
Refuting testimony from an expert witness heard last week, Steven Slyter, a forensic document examiner, often referred to as a handwriting expert, testified that one-to-one signature comparisons are not enough to determine the lack of common authorship. Last Tuesday, Thomas Vasterick testified that he had analyzed voting material signatures (voter registration cards, absentee application, absentee ballot inner and outer envelopes, voter assistance forms, and precinct rosters) and concluded that there were roughly 100 instances in the November 2014 general election where signatures did not have a minimal level of characteristics of similar authorship. Slyter testified on Monday that with one-to-one comparisons, you can only flag signatures that need further inquiry, requesting more exemplars closer to the timeframe of the current examples. Slyter said that he looked through Vasterick’s list of signatures that did not have minimal level of similarities and he would have flagged roughly 10 for needing further exemplars, but no conclusions could be made with the information available.
Magoffin County Deputy Judge Executive and Emergency Management Director Mike Wilson also took the stand, testifying that no county work had been done on Larry and Renee Shepherd’s property, as well as explained why on a few occasions county workers were required to extend their work onto private property. Tiles used to keep water off county roads were discussed in several examples, with Wilson showing in photos the justification for each project. Wilson also testified that no gravel was put on Magistrate Gary “Rooster” Risner’s property by county workers, as well.
A democratic challenger for the Flat Fork precinct testified that she did not witness any improprieties at the precinct regarding voter assistance. She said another challenger had videoed voters as they were being assisted, which she brought up to the precinct sheriff, but found out that was within her rights to do so. She said she was afraid that could have made voters feel intimidated. The Flat Fork precinct sheriff also testified he didn’t see anything inappropriate, either.
Similarly, the challengers for the in-house absentee voting also testified, both saying they did not witness any improprieties as people came in for over two weeks to vote absentee in the Magoffin County Court Clerk’s Office.
Renee Shepherd was called to the stand, again, explaining that county races in Magoffin do generally see an increase in absentee voting and that the numbers observed in the November 2014 general election reflect the trend. She testified that she stands by the results and believes the election was conducted fairly.
Republican Commissioner of the Magoffin County Board of Elections Justin Williams was questioned about his role in politics before taking the commissioner position. He explained that he is a pastor of a local church and, after being asked several questions about Christianity and vote buying, he, along with many local pastors, published a letter to the editor in this newspaper. Then they drafted a no vote-buying pledge, which also ran in the Independent, along with the running list of the candidates who had signed the pledge. He explained how he was appointed as commissioner, filling a vacancy and appointed by the state Board of Elections, officially the Thursday after in-house absentee voting began, though he wasn’t notified until Friday. He worked as commissioner half a day that Friday through the rest of absentee voting, as well as Election Day. He stated that he diligently looked for issues, but didn’t find any and believed the election was conducted fairly and with integrity. He testified that Larry Shepherd had assisted a voter, but it was with that voter’s request. Williams also explained how they handled counting the mail-in absentees on Election Day, explaining that any deviations from KRS statutes were justifiable for practicality and to keep the vote count fair. Flores pointed out a text conversation reportedly between Williams and Justin Pratt the day after the election, about serious concerns regarding the absentee ballots. Williams stated that he may have had some concerns, but not about the process.
At the end of the day, the attorneys for the Board of Elections and Hardin argued no evidence pointed to wrongdoing, citing similar cases that would suggest a dismissal. Montgomery’s attorney cited KRS statutes and expert testimony that he said proved election procedures had been violated.
Judge John David Preston said he would review his notes and the evidence and issue a ruling as soon as possible. At press time on Wednesday, no ruling has been released.