Clerk’s race qualifying blunder avoided

Published 8:00 pm Sunday, September 9, 2012

Missteps at the circuit clerk’s office sent previously presumed candidates in the Lincoln County special election for circuit clerk scrambling to legally qualify only hours before the final deadline on Friday.

     A Friday morning discovery revealed incorrect filing paperwork had been collected from those seeking to qualify in the clerk’s race. A petition signed by 50 registered voters of the county is required of each candidate but had not been collected.

     Interim Circuit Clerk Sherry Jordan claimed fault for the error.

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     “It was an oversight,” she said. “I take responsibility for it.”

     By the time the clerk’s office closed at 5 p.m. Friday, eight of the nine previously declared candidates had submitted petitions, but Lenard King did not.

     However, until the circuit clerk’s office verifies the signatures of each petition belong to registered voters, the final status of all candidates remains in limbo.

     Jordan’s office had begun verifying signatures Friday and she estimated the process would be finished by late Monday or early Tuesday.

     State law requires candidates in a special election to submit the petition, said Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.

     Instead of the petition, the circuit clerk’s office had collected a $15 qualifying fee as would be required in a normally scheduled county election with party primaries. Jordan said she will refund the $15 fee to all prospective candidates.

     The interim clerk said she should have noted the requirements for a special election, but had failed to do so.

     “I feel really bad about it,” Jordan said.

     She’s never been involved in a countywide special election, Jordan added.

     If they are determined to have submitted petitions containing 50 valid signatures, the field of candidates will include Dustin Bairfield, Josh Davis, Terry Reid, Heather White Martin, Janie Wallace Sisco, L. Mike Smith, Paula Thames Smith and Mike Walley.

     King was reportedly out of town Friday and unable to collect signatures. He could not be reached for comment, but in an interview earlier this year said he’d considered dropping out of the race.

     Hosemann notified Jordan late Friday morning to inform her of the misstep after his office became aware of it.

     All nine prospective candidates who thought they’d legally qualified were contacted by early Friday afternoon, Jordan said.

     However, at least two candidates and one local party official had been aware since early this year of Jordan’s failure to collect the required petitions.

     Bairfield and Sisco both acknowledged having petitions already prepared when they were contacted Friday, Jordan said.

     When asked about his petition, Bairfield said he’d known of Jordan’s mistake since January when he examined the secretary of state’s website. He pointed to his research and knowledge of the relevant laws as lending credibility to his candidacy.

     “That’s what I’m running on,” Bairfield said. “Knowledge of the office.”

     Sisco offered similar remarks. She said she called the secretary of state’s office with a few questions shortly after filing her initial paperwork and learned of the required petition.

     “I’m a detail person,” said Sisco, describing that attention to detail as well suiting her for the office.

     Sisco said she didn’t report the mistake because she believed candidates seeking the clerk’s office would or should possess familiarity with electoral laws and the materials available from the secretary of state.

     Lincoln County Republican Party Chairman John Roberts also said he’d known of Jordan’s mistake since Jan. 15 when Bairfield told him.

     As to why he didn’t inform Jordan or the secretary of state’s office of the error, Roberts said he didn’t feel that was his responsibility.

     “I’m chairman of the Republican Party. I’m not supposed to enlighten the Democratic Party,” Roberts said. “I look out for Republicans.”

     However, three other candidates besides Bairfield had identified themselves as Republicans. When asked why he left those candidates in the dark, Roberts said his personal support of Bairfield was no secret.

     “I’m backing Dustin,” Roberts said. “I committed to Dustin 22 months ago.”

     Terry Lynn Watkins defeated Bairfield in last November’s election to win re-election to another term as circuit clerk. Watkins, though, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and resigned in early January to avoid a trial on embezzlement charges.

     Roberts went on to echo Bairfield and Sisco, saying that candidates seeking the office should be familiar with election laws.

     “If someone is running for circuit clerk and doesn’t know the laws of the elections, they shouldn’t be clerk,” Roberts said. “They should know their job.”

     The corrected qualifying forms that should accompany the petitions do not include party affiliation and party labels will not be present on the ballot.

     The special election is scheduled for Nov. 6 to fill Watkins’ unexpired term. Jordan, previously a deputy clerk, was appointed by Lincoln County supervisors to fill the office until a new clerk is elected.

     A runoff will follow on Nov. 27 if no candidate captures more than 50 percent of the vote on the first ballot.