County officials say Tuesday night’s primary runoff produced an unusually high number of absentee votes. A local candidate, however, doesn’t think there were nearly enough.
More than 200 absentee ballots were cast in Tuesday night’s primary runoff election for the Democratic nominee for the District 1 Calhoun County Commission seat. Incumbent Fred Wilson received only 31 absentee votes compared to 174 for challenger Montgomery. In terms of total votes, Wilson received 671 to Montgomery's 352 with 10 of 11 precincts reporting Tuesday night.
And while that’s a big difference in absentee votes, especially for a losing candidate, Montgomery said he thinks it should have been an even bigger swing in his favor.
“I want to know what happened to all of the ballots,” Montgomery said Wednesday, noting that more than 300 applications for absentee ballots were requested from District 1 ahead of Tuesday’s election. “If more of those were counted, and were for us, the results might have been different.”
While Montgomery wants to know what happened to the votes, officials in the county are wondering where all of the absentee voters came from in the first place. Carolyn Henderson, a member of the Calhoun County Board of Registrars, said the 205 absentee ballots by themselves were unusually high for a runoff primary election, let alone the 364 absentee ballot requests her office received for absentee ballots last week.
Henderson said that number was higher than all the absentee ballots counted in the whole county for the initial primary election in June.
When asked by The Star last week about the high number of absentee ballots, Montgomery said his campaign had actively told residents to get absentee ballots if they thought for any reason they might not make it to the polls Tuesday night.
Under Alabama law, absentee ballots can only be requested by residents who are physically unable to get to the polls on the day of the election, will be out of town, working at the polls, or working a 10-hour shift on Election Day that coincides with the time the polls are open. Voter fraud is a Class C felony.
On Wednesday, Montgomery said he believed more than 400 residents in District 1 requested absentee ballots, but the Board of Registrars’ concerns about the high volume of absentee applications cast his campaign in a negative light, and may have deterred voters from returning ballots.
Henderson said that many voters who requested an absentee ballot never ended up voting, but there were also several ballots that were filled out incorrectly that could not be counted.
Henderson said last week she feared the high number of absentee ballot applications would mean voters would be turned away at the polls, because a person who applies for an absentee ballot cannot vote in person on election day. Earlier this month Henderson said she was confronted by a voter who was upset she had received an absentee application she had not requested. When Henderson showed the woman that she signed up for the application, the woman said she was under the impression she was registering to vote.
Henderson said her fears came true on election night, with the registrar’s office receiving several complaints about voters who were turned away because they had registered to vote absentee. Many, she said, were so angry they declined to fill out provisional ballots.
“It wasn’t in the hundreds, nothing to swing the election,” Henderson said. “But if just one person is turned away, denied their right to vote, that’s one too many.”
Montgomery said his campaign, however, was about clearing up confusion, not creating it, by having folks register to vote absentee.
“A lot of folks we talked to didn’t even know the election was still happening,” Montgomery said. “They thought it was over and Fred Wilson won.”
Montgomery said he heard from residents who did not receive an absentee ballot until Monday, and were unable to return the vote in time. He said he also heard that some residents had been turned away from the polls without being given an opportunity to vote a provisional ballot.
Henderson said 22 provisional ballots were cast on Tuesday night. Those votes will not be counted until July 28, she said.
Montgomery said he plans on raising questions about how absentee and provisional votes were counted, but said he had no plans to make an official complaint with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office.
“I’m not saying anything wrong happened,” Montgomery said. “If I get reasonable answers to my questions, then I see no reason to raise a complaint.”
Voter fraud has been a hot topic in Alabama this year. The June 3 primary was the first election in the state that fell under a new voter identification law which requires residents to have a photo I.D. to enter the polls. The Alabama Republican Party operated a tip line during that election asking residents to report incidents of fraud. The party said it handed all information and evidence of voter fraud — which allegedly included voters turned away from the polls because they had already cast absentee ballots — to the Attorney General’s Office.