Winner of judge-executive race in Magoffin still uncertain amidst allegations of vote fraud

bestep@herald-leader.comJune 16, 2014 

Election Day was a month ago, but voters still aren't sure who won the Democratic primary for judge-executive in Magoffin County.

Challenger H.B. Arnett, a former county clerk, tallied the most votes May 20, but Arnett's three-vote lead turned into a three-vote deficit to incumbent Charles "Doc" Hardin in a recount Friday.

A judge did not certify the new result, however, leaving both sides claiming victory.

Arnett thinks fraud was involved in the recount, according to his lawyer. But Hardin contends there was no fraud, just an error in counting that ultimately was fixed, his attorney said.

"Our position is Dr. Hardin won. The error was found," said Hardin's attorney, Eldred Edward "Bud" Adams Jr.

If the two sides agree on anything, it's that a higher court will have to sort things out and declare a winner.

"It's just a bizarre case," said Sal yersville attorney Gordon Long, who represents Arnett.

The initial vote count showed Arnett defeating Hardin in the Democrat primary, 2,022 to 2,019.

A recanvass did not change the results. However, in the recount Friday, Arnett lost one vote in the absentee count and Hardin picked up five absentee votes, putting Hardin ahead by three, Arnett said.

A recount is more detailed than a recanvass, involving hand-counting of the paper absentee ballots.

Arnett said county Clerk Renee Arnett-Shepherd, the chief local election officer, could not explain the change in the count. Arnett and his supporters suspect fraud, however.

Long said that on Election Day there were nine paper absentee ballots that had votes in other races but did not have votes recorded in the contest for the Democratic nomination for judge-executive.

"We think somebody's gone back and tampered with those and voted those people" for Hardin, Long said Monday.

After the vote was counted on primary-election night, people stayed very late in the county clerk's office, said Arnett's daughter, Circuit Clerk Tonya Ward. And Long said members of the county election board are supporters of Hardin.

One is the wife of a man who went to federal prison for buying votes in a 2010 election, Long said.

But the county clerk, Arnett-Shepherd, said she did not think there was any fraud involved in the recount that resulted in more votes for Hardin. Whatever was in the ballot box on election night was there for the recount, she said.

"No one got into that ballot box," Arnett-Shepherd said Monday.

Either way, Circuit Judge Kimberley Childers declined to certify the results of the recount, according to attorneys involved in the case.

"That leaves me as the winner, as of right now," Arnett said.

The next step in the impasse would be to ask the state Court of Appeals to sort through the tangle and declare a winner. Adams said Hardin would consider seeking such a ruling.

"Both sides need a resolution," he said.

In the meantime, Childers ordered that Kentucky State Police keep the election materials secure.

Controversy flared in the race between Hardin and Arnett even before the vote.

Arnett and more than a dozen other candidates charged that Hardin refused to appoint the challengers they wanted stationed at polling places.

They said they were concerned Hardin had stacked the county election system with supporters, and they wanted challengers at the polls to watch for potential improprieties.

The two sides ultimately agreed the candidates could have the challengers they wanted at the polls, but Hardin also could have a challenger at each.

The May 20 primary was the second local election in a row with a controversy involving Hardin.

Two candidates — including one who lost to Hardin — sued after the November 2010 election over alleged improprieties.

Witnesses testified that Randy Salyer, a Democrat on the county election board, was involved in buying signed absentee ballots, which could be filled in later, for $50 or more apiec​e.

Salyer's wife worked for Hardin.

The judge in the case 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, the judge said the evidence was not strong enough to warrant overturning the election results.

Hardin told the Herald-Leader at the time that he had not been involved in buying votes and had no personal knowledge of vote fraud.

Salyer was convicted in federal court of buying votes and sentenced to 21 months in prison.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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