SALYERSVILLE — A judge approved a deal Wednesday to appoint challengers at Magoffin County polling places, settling a controversy in which 15 local candidates said Judge-Executive Charles "Doc" Hardin refused to appoint their preferred representatives.
Opponents said that they're concerned that Hardin has stacked the county election machinery with supporters, and that they want challengers at seven polling places to watch for potential improprieties.
"If I wasn't kind of concerned about the election, I wouldn't have these challengers," said former county clerk H.B. Arnett, who is trying to unseat Hardin in the Democratic primary on May 20.
Hardin did not attend a hearing on the issue Wednesday and did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
The controversy is rooted in part in the sour taste left by the November 2010 election, in which one candidate who lost to Hardin and another who lost in the sheriff's race sued over alleged improprieties.
Witnesses in the case testified that Randy Salyer, a Democrat on the county elections board, was involved in buying signed absentee ballots — which could then be filled in later — for $50 to $100 apiece. Salyer's wife worked for Hardin.
The judge in that case, William Engle, ruled that the losing candidates proved there was vote-buying in the election, and that they had raised strong suspicion that Hardin and Carson Montgomery, a Republican who won the sheriff's race, knew about illegal acts by their supporters.
However, Engle said the evidence was not strong enough to warrant overturning the election results.
Hardin told the Herald-Leader at that time that he had not been involved in buying votes and had no personal knowledge of vote fraud.
For the upcoming primary, Arnett and 14 other Democrats seeking local offices wanted to station challengers at seven polling places.
Challengers can keep an eye on the proceedings and require proof that voters are qualified.
For instance, if someone claims he needs help in the voting booth, the challenger can make sure the proper paperwork is filled out to document the reason, said Colin Ray Jackson, a former county jailer who is supporting Arnett.
Having someone go into the voting booth with people has been prevalent in some Kentucky counties as a way to make sure people voted as they were paid to do.
Arnett said in a lawsuit that he took the list of challengers to Hardin's medical office on April 16, but Hardin refused to accept it.
Arnett and others said the intent then was to submit the list on April 18, the deadline to submit the names of challengers.
It was Good Friday, but the courthouse was to be open half the day, Arnett said.
However, the courthouse was closed for "unspecified reasons," and a fiscal court meeting scheduled for that day was canceled, said Lexington attorney Luke Morgan, who represented the 15 candidates trying to get challengers appointed.
The candidates sued Hardin in his capacity as chairman of the county Democratic Party, seeking an injunction requiring appointment of their challengers.
Morgan said witnesses were prepared to testify that some candidates had been approached about dropping their request.
If enough had done so, it would have scuttled the effort to get challengers appointed because state law requires a minimum percentage of candidates to join the request.
However, there was no hearing because attorneys for the 15 candidates and Hardin agreed on an injunction requiring that the candidates' challengers be seated, with Hardin also having a challenger of his choice at each of the seven polling places.
Circuit Judge Kimberley Childers approved the order, which said that both sides want an "open, honest and fair" election.
Morgan said Arnett was pleased with the agreement "and happy for the citizens of Magoffin County to have this transparency in the upcoming election."
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.