OPINION – An extremely close primary election race in Millard County isn’t likely to ring too many alarm bells among those of us who don’t actually live there. But we’d still be wise to pay closer attention to the the current nail-biter between incumbent county commissioner Jim Withers and his challenger Jim Dyer.
The first count of primary election ballots cast in the June 24 primary showed Dyer as the winner of the race by a single vote. Of course, this was before the final canvassing of the vote as required by law.
At that time, the county clerk’s office reported that all ballots received by election day had been included in that tally–including early and absentee ballots. When the official canvass commenced on July 1, roughly 20 new ballots had appeared including a number of provisional ballots that were added to the final tally.
In a happy coincidence for the incumbent commissioner, the discovery of the new ballots changed the outcome of the election in his favor by five votes.
Here’s where things start to get interesting. In response to Government Records Access Management Act, or GRAMA, requests made by a local newspaper, the Millard County clerk’s office had provided printouts indicating that zero provisional ballots had been cast. The clerk’s office had maintained, up until the day before the official canvass, that there were no provisional ballots.
Provisional ballots could more accurately be referred to as questionable ballots in that the person casting the ballot has failed to meet one or more of the necessary qualifications to be considered a registered voter. They are allowed to cast a provisional ballot with the understanding that their vote will only count if they can demonstrate that they meet the necessary qualifications within the time allowed by law.
This means that provisional ballots not only require extra scrutiny to ensure that the voter is, in fact, qualified to cast a valid vote but also that they are counted and handled accurately in accordance with state election laws. Likewise, absentee ballots have to be issued no later than the Thursday prior to the Tuesday election.
The clerk’s office maintains that it discovered and subsequently counted the “previously unaccounted for” provisional ballots on the morning of the official canvass. They are supposed to be accounted for within 24 hours of the election.
There is also a serious question as to whether at least five absentee ballots were issued after the deadline. Records from the county clerk’s office appear to indicate that this is the case. In an election that is supposedly won by 5 votes, that could further muddy the waters concerning who actually won.
At this point, challenger Jim Dyer requested a comprehensive recount and also requested access to the records and the provisional ballot envelopes. His request was denied and Dyer was told that he would have to make a formal GRAMA written request. He was told it could take up to 10 days for his request to be met.
At this point the election may end up being challenged judicially because of the irregularities that have surfaced.
Attorney Todd Macfarlane said:
There may be more than just voting irregularities here; we may have uncovered outright deceit, including collusion or even worse that certainly warrants a comprehensive recount. It may leave Mr. Dyer no choice but to undertake a judicial challenge of the election, with full investigation, to get to the bottom of what really happened.
Controversy over close elections is nothing new. But the way this particular controversy has come about raises some very interesting questions about the nature of power–even in a sparsely populated county in Utah’s West Desert.
This most recent primary also saw incumbent Millard County commissioner Darin Smith unseated by challenger Dean Draper in a contest that was not so close. Smith’s loss was blamed on radical constitutionalists trying to seize power from the incumbents.
What that actually means is left to our own emotional associations. The only thing we know for certain is that it’s considered a threat to those who wish to maintain their power.
The questionable handling of ballots in the admittedly close Withers/Dyer race looks even more shady when considering that the folks in charge stood to lose a second commission seat. Would they go far enough to tamper with the right to vote to stay in control?
Is there really that much power at stake in Millard County, or is this just a series of unfortunate coincidences?
Most of us have no problem accepting that politics brings with it a certain amount of corruption. Why is it so easy to see it for what it is at the highest levels, but so tough to recognize when it’s right in our midst?
We cannot allow ourselves to become distracted.
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Bryan Hyde is a morning commentator on Talk Radio 590 KSUB and an opinion writer in Southern Utah. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.