A ringing endorsement for the non-candidate

Jefferson County Ballot Commissioner Gary Dungan is spearheading an effort to have Republican Ronald Bell’s name appear on the ballot as a candidate for magistrate. Trouble is, Bell’s not running.

While he was the highest Republican vote-getter for the position in May’s primary, Bell moved to Virginia in June without informing the county’s elections office, a slip-up that would have resulted in his name being one of six — three Republicans and three Democrats — on the general election ballot for voters to select in November, until the Ballot Commisison voted 2-1 to have his name removed.

Dungan was the one vote opposing the motion — one recently upheld by Circuit Judge David Sanders — and is now asking Sanders to reconsider and either keep Bell on the ballot or allow the county’s Republican Executive Committee to appoint someone else to take his place. Dungan argues the committee notified the secretary of state’s office in an effort to have Bell’s name removed but was stymied in its effort by the onetime candidate himself who failed to provide a statement indicating he’d moved out of the area, and therefore, he maintains, Republicans shouldn’t be made to suffer for the omission by only being able to field two candidates.

If Bell remains on the ballot and again ends up one of the top vote-getters, however, that means the county will have to hold a special election for magistrate. There are three seats being contested this election with Democrat incumbents Bill Senseney, Mary Paul Rissler and Gail Boober being challenged by Republicans Bill Arnicar, Peter Onoszko, and until recently, Bell. It’s not clear how that would work.

The position of magistrate, while partisan, is of limited jurisdiction. Magistrates can rule on civil disputes of less than $5,000, hear misdemeanor cases and conduct preliminary examinations in felony cases. They issue and record affidavits, complaints, arrest warrants, and search warrants in criminal cases and also have the authority to set bail and decide on proposed plea agreements, and assign courts costs, cash bonds and fines. To be a magistrate, West Virginia does not require that a candidate be a lawyer.

To be sure, being limited to fielding just two candidates leaves Republicans disadvantaged; at least one Democrat would return as magistrate if the ballot appears with five candidates and Republicans win the other two.

But a ruling in favor of keeping Bell’s name on the ballot is unlikely given that county prosecutor Stephanie Grove has already argued there is precedent for ballot commissions to act as this one did in removing Bell’s name, and holding a special election for such a low-level officer is equally unlikely to bring out many voters at all. 

Dungan might indeed be correct that there is no clear authority for which a ballot commission can remove a name; all the more reason to address that omission going forward with the state Legislature. But, in this matter, the commissioners acted on behalf of the best interest of the voters, who shouldn’t be asked to vote for someone who isn’t even running. Sanders’ first ruling should be the final one.

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