Republicans chafe at election ruling

CHARLES TOWN – County Republicans say they are disappointed with a recent court decision that removes the name of a party candidate from the ballot in November.

Jefferson County magistrate candidate Ronald “Ronnie” Bell will not appear on the ballot as a result of a ruling last week by Circuit Court Judge David Sanders. The decision leaves three incumbent Democrats and only two Republican magistrate candidates on the ballot.

In arguing for a reversal, Jefferson County Ballot Commission member Gary Dungan said Sanders’ ruling sets a dangerous precedent that expands the powers of local ballot commissions, allowing them to remove candidates from the ballot. He has requested that the Secretary of State appeal the ruling to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Stephanie Grove defended the move, noting that existing court precedents have already established that grants ballot commissions this authority. Grove told the County Commission last week that if Bell had been allowed to stay on the ballot and had been elected, the county would have been forced to hold a special election for the post of magistrate.

According to court documents, Bell moved from Jefferson County to Loudoun County, Va. on June 3, though he did not inform the clerk of his move. Bell’s final financial disclosure, which was filed last week — almost three months after the June 19 statutory deadline — lists an address in Sterling, Va. as his current residence.

Bell received the highest number of primary votes of any Republican magistrate candidate and was reportedly active in the magistrate training process prior to moving.

Bell informed the Republican Executive Committee of his departure in June, and Dungan said the committee had contacted the secretary of state’s office to try to find a way to remove him from the ballot and appoint a replacement candidate. The efforts were stymied because Bell failed to produce a notarized written statement indicating that he had left the state, Dungan said.

When County Clerk Jennifer Maghan and Democratic ballot commissioner Reva Mickey were informed of Bell’s departure earlier this month, a mad dash began to find a way to remove him from the ballot before the ballots were finalized.

The ballot commission took action to remove Bell’s in a 2-1 vote, with County Clerk Jennifer Maghan and Democratic ballot commissioner Reva Mickey voting to remove Bell’s name, while Dungan voted against the measure. He argued that the commission did not have the authority to take such an action.

Maghan then filed a petition in circuit court asking Sanders to affirm the ballot commission’s action and to authorize Bell’s removal. In his ruling, Sanders upheld the commission’s decision.

“I thought that the process served the voters of Jefferson County well,” Mickey said. “They were not placed in a position to vote for someone who did not live in West Virginia, and therefore was ineligible to be a candidate for magistrate.”

Dungan disagrees.

“I felt that there was no authority (to remove Bell) the way it was done,” Dungan said. “In all the research we’ve done, I’ve seen nothing that says the ballot commission has the authority to remove anybody.”

Dungan said the Republican Executive Committee relied on advice from legal staff with the secretary of state. He said the committee was advised that there was no way to remove Bell from the ballot without a written statement.

“The (Republican) Executive Committee is in a position of having been badly damaged by relying on election advice from the state’s chief elections office – the secretary of state,” Dungan said, adding the Aug. 20 deadline for the party to appoint a replacement candidate has since passed.

Dungan said he has drafted a letter to Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, urging her office to appeal the circuit court’s ruling. He also asked the state Legislature to consider drafting new legislation to explicitly state that ballot commissions cannot remove candidates, if the decision is not appealed.

“I believe that the ability of any three-member ballot commission in the state to remove a candidate from the ballot either before or, as in this case, after the deadline to appoint an alternate candidate, opens the door for great election mischief in the state,” Dungan wrote.

Bell’s removal leaves the race a contest between three incumbent Democrats – Bill Senseney, Mary Paul Rissler and Gail Boober – and the two remaining Republican challengers – Bill Arnicar and Peter Onoszko. Each voter will be asked to choose three of the five candidates in the November elections.

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