The Atlantic Beach Municipal Election Commission may have pushed the limits of state election law in its vote certification hearing Thursday, according to a training official with the SC Election Commission.
At the hearing, the town's election commission certified Jake Evans as the winner of the mayor's race and Josephine Isom and Charlene Taylor as the town council winners. But that came after the commission rejected more than 40 challenged ballots, with most challenges in based on claims that the voter was not a legal resident of Atlantic Beach.
Many challenged voters said they were shown no evidence to support the claim that they were not legal residents. Rita Tucker told NewsChannel 15 she showed the commission her photo ID, voter registration card and rental receipts verifying her address in Atlantic Beach, but her vote was still thrown out, with no explanation.
"They gave me absolutely nothing," Tucker said.
That's not typically the way vote challenges should be handled by election commissioners, said Chris Whitmire, director of public information and training for the state election commission. "They should explain to the voter why their vote doesn't count," he said.
Whitmire said state law doesn't state explicitly that election commissioners must reveal their thinking when rejecting a ballot, but in general practice, that should occur. "It only makes sense that if somebody's ballot is not being counted that a reason be provided."
Also at the hearing, documents gathered by poll watcher Patricia Bellamy to challenge votes were provided to the commission, but not made public. David Canty, an attorney representing Evans, told commission chairperson Nicole Kenion that the documents should be a part of the public record. Kenion replied to Canty that she didn't have to show the documents to anyone.
But Whitmire said evidence about a vote challenge that doesn't obviously violate a voter's privacy should be made available for inspection. "I would say that it's public information."
On at least one of the vote challenges, the commissioners rejected the ballot with neither the voter nor the vote challenger present at the hearing. Whitmire said usually the only time that a vote can be rejected without the challenger being physically present is if the challenge was made by a certified voting official. "Generally if they're challenged by just a poll watcher, or if some interested party at the poll challenges the voter, if that challenger doesn't show up, then the ballot's counted."
Whitmire said he would also caution commissioners to not hold a hearing prior to the time the hearing was advertised to be held. Some challenged voters said they were given notice that Thursday's certification hearing would begin at 10 a.m., when in fact it started at 8 a.m.
Whitmire said that presents a couple of problems. "It's not fair to the voters who were challenged, because they basically held the hearing without giving them a chance to be there and of course the Freedom of Information Act requires the public bodies to advertise the time that they're going to meet." He said state law says a commission must hold a hearing at the scheduled time that it's advertised to be held.
State law also requires municipal election commissioners to complete a training and certification program provided by the state within 18 months of their appointment. Whitmire said none of Atlantic Beach's three election commissioners have received that training to date, though they may still have time. "Their deadline for completing the training hasn't come up yet. I think they're relatively new commissioners."
NewsChannel 15 attempted to contact commissioners Nicole Kenion, Charlette Hudson and Delayne Miller, for comment, but we were unsuccessful.