Commission Orders New Election

Winnsboro attorney Debra Matthews (right) celebrates as District 3 challenger Walter Larry Stewart (second from right) receives congratulations from Vernon Plyant following the Election Commission’s ruling Monday that a new election would be necessary between Stewart and incumbent Mikel Trapp for the District 3 County Council seat. (Photo/James Denton)

Battle for District 3 Seat Rages on

WINNSBORO – The proverbial Fat Lady who has been waiting in the wings since Nov. 4 to perform her closing aria for the District 3 County Council race will have to go back to her dressing room, at least for the time being. Monday afternoon, the Fairfield County Election Commission unanimously upheld two of the three grounds for protest presented last week by challenger Walter Larry Stewart and ordered a new election between Stewart and incumbent Mikel Trapp.

In results certified by the Election Commission following a recount on Nov. 7, Trapp edged out Stewart in the hotly contested race, 489-485. But irregularities found on absentee ballot envelopes by Stewart supporters, as well as reports of voters in District 3 receiving the incorrect ballot style at their polling places, prompted Stewart to file an official protest of the results last week.

While the Election Commission overruled Stewart’s protest on the absentee envelopes, it agreed with the Stewart camp that five voters – two in Mitford and three in Monticello – had been presented with the wrong ballot style on election day and therefore were unable to cast a vote in the District 3 race for County Council.

“This is democracy at its best,” Debra Matthews, a Winnsboro attorney representing Stewart at the hearing, said. “It’s a great day in South Carolina.”

Trapp did not make an appearance at Monday’s hearing, instead sending as his representative Winnsboro resident Kadena Woodard. Woodard’s participation in the proceedings, however, was limited.

As Woodard prepared to read a statement from Trapp to the Commission and offer two attached documents as evidence, Matthews objected.

“There is a notary spot at the bottom of this which is not filled in,” Matthews said. “This is a hearsay statement and I’m going to object.”

Liz Crumb, an attorney with the McNair Law Firm, retained by the Commission for the hearing, advised against Woodard making a case for Trapp at all.

“She’s not counsel and that would be practicing law without a license,” Crumb told Commission Vice Chairwoman Carolyn Y. Prioleau.

Prioleau chaired the hearing in place of Commission Chairwoman Betty M. Trapp, who recused herself from the proceedings and was not present Monday in the County Council chambers. She is related to Mikel Trapp by marriage to a Mikel Trapp cousin. Betty Trapp did chair the Nov. 7 recount and certification.

“I am not counsel, but I do have the right to read a statement that (Trapp) sent to the (commission),” Woodard said. “I would be treated so unfairly not to be able to read it.”

Woodard said she had in her possession a letter from Trapp apologizing for not being able to attend the hearing, but Matthews again objected.

“This is a hearsay statement and I’m going to object to the entry of this statement,” Matthews said. “I hadn’t seen it previously. It is directed to the board. I don’t know if the board has seen it previously.”

Both of Matthews’s objections were sustained. The Commission did eventually accept Woodard’s documents as an “offer of proof.” The documents were not reviewed by the Commission, but were instead sealed in an envelope and left to the State Election Commission to determine, in the event of an appeal, “whether or not the (commission) wrongfully kept you from making a statement,” Crumb explained to Woodard.

The Arguments

Matthews successfully argued that five voters had received the incorrect ballot style in the Nov. 4 elections, and therefore were prevented from casting a ballot for the District 3 Council race. Two of those voters were in the Mitford precinct and live at 202 Peay Ridge Road.

According to the 9-1-1 maps, which Debbie Stidham, Director of Fairfield County Voter Registration and Elections, testified were the means by which her office verifies voting districts, all even-numbered addresses on Peay Ridge Road lie on the south side of the road. That orientation places the even-numbered addresses in District 2. But through the testimony of Randy Roberts, of the Fairfield County Assessor’s Office, who on the witness stand reviewed the County’s aerial map of the road, 202 is an anomaly. It is the only even-numbered address among a host of odd-numbers lying on the north side of the road. And, according to Stidham’s testimony, addresses on the north side of Peay Ridge Road are in District 3.

Affidavits of the two voters living at 202 affirmed that they had both been given ballots for District 2 instead of District 3 on Nov. 4.

Three voters in the St. Peters Church precinct in Monticello were also given the incorrect ballot style on Nov. 4, Stidham’s testimony confirmed. Voters from both districts 3 and 4 vote at the church, and based on the records from the voting machines, the three District 3 voters who cast ballots there on Nov. 4 had their votes counted in District 4.

Trapp has until Nov. 24 to file an appeal, at which time the State Election Commission will make its ruling. A new election will not be scheduled until the State Commission sends their findings to the Governor’s Office and the election is ordered by Gov. Nikki Haley.

Efforts to reach Trapp by telephone for comment for this story were unsuccessful.

“We’re moving forward,” Stewart said after the hearing. “I’m going to need everybody’s support for this next step, in this next election. I need everybody’s support in this next election to make it a new day in Fairfield County, because we’re going to have to work hard to get there.”

Comments

  1. Mark Polk says

    Councilman Trapp leaves Council meetings early or doesn’t attend, doesn’t show for open forum meetings (ie, Meet the Candidates), can’t make a hearing on an election protest but instead sends a proxy and can’t be reached by phone. Why does he want to even stay on Council?

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