TALLADEGA -- The contest for Talladega City Board of Education Ward 3 is now officially in Talladega County Circuit Court.
Angela Estelle, who lost the general election to incumbent Jake Montgomery by a single vote last month, filed an official election contest Monday.
According to the document she filed with the court, “The election results were counted on Aug. 27, 2109, at the close of the polls. The (poll results) showed that candidate Angela D. Estelle was ahead 340 (votes) to 335 for Jake Montgomery.
“Then results changed as absentee ballots were charged. After the voting machine was closed, two additional votes were added to the total for Jake Montgomery. The election results for Ward 3 were reported as 240 votes for Estelle and 241 votes for Montgomery. These results were certified on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019.”
Estelle requested a recount, which was conducted Friday and did not result in any change to the outcome.
Estelle alleges in her paperwork filed with the court that, “There was misconduct, fraud or corruption on the part of election officials; illegal votes were given to candidate Montgomery; legal votes for candidate Estelle were rejected (and) other conduct calculated to prevent a fair, free and full exercise of the election process was engaged in by the election officials.
“Petitioner says that if the illegal votes are subtracted from Montgomery … Estelle would have the greater number of legal votes. (She also) says if all the legal votes due her are counted, she will have the greater number of legal votes.”
The filing mirrors the language in the law that describes the grounds for contesting an election, but does not provide any details.
When reached for comment Wednesday, Estelle said the filing “speaks for itself. There’s a lot that went on that’s unlawful. There are questions about who was able to vote and about the provisional ballots.”
Although there is no lawyer’s name in the filing and no notice of appearance in the case file, Estelle said she does have an attorney.
She added that “I had been told one price, and paid, then told that I would have to pay some additional money. I didn’t really understand that, but I paid it anyway. I feel like this was my election and I feel I won it.”
Said Montgomery, “It is her right to exercise under the statute, but I am just not aware of any facts that would support her allegations.
“As far as I know, everyone who showed up to vote in Ward 3 voted, and those votes were counted. I’m not concerned for myself, but she is alleging fraud by the election workers, which could affect the integrity of all future elections. And I just don’t know of any facts that support that. You just don’t go around slinging terms like fraud and corruption about election officials.”
Election night and beyond
During the election last month, voters in Wards 3 and 4 both cast their ballots at the Spring Street Recreation Center. According to Talladega City Manager Beth Cheeks, two people filled out ballots for Ward 3 but put them in the machine for Ward 4.
These two ballots, which both went to Montgomery, were not counted when the machines were counted down at the polling place but were added back in when the final totals were run at City Hall later that night. Those two ballots provided Montgomery’s margin of victory.
As reported election night, there were 46 provisional ballots cast; 36 of those were absentee ballots, and the other 10 were cast at the various polling places; three each in Wards 1 and 2 and four in Ward 5. There were no provisional ballots cast at the polls for either Ward 3 or 4.
Only six provisional ballots were approved by the Talladega County Board of Registrars and included in the final tally.
According to a letter from the board to the City Clerk’s Office, however, only eight of the 36 provisional absentee ballots should have been marked provisional.
“After discussion with both Ed Packard of the Secretary of State’s Office and with you, it was determined that only eight of these (those that required proof of ID) were, in fact, true provision ballots and are the responsibility of the Board of Registrars to determine whether or not to count these ballots,” the letter said. Ultimately, two of those eight absentee ballots were counted.
The remaining 28 absentee provisional ballots were returned to the city. Cheeks said she sought opinions from both the Alabama secretary of state and the League of Municipalities, and was told by both that the returned ballots could not be counted.
The ballots the registrars said had been improperly marked provisional had been handled by veteran poll workers who had been trained by Talladega County, Cheeks said.
According to court documents, the case has been assigned to Talladega County Circuit Judge Chad Woodruff. Estelle has requested a bench trial, meaning the case will be heard by Woodruff alone, not by a jury.