EXCLUSIVE — It wasn't so much a “do-over” that the
Alabama Supreme Court issued late last week in the fight
over absentee ballots in Cedar Bluff. Rather, it was
more of a “keep going.”
The state high court declared in an 18-page ruling
issued Friday afternoon that Alabama law does not grant
the court system jurisdiction over contested election
results until one candidate has been “declared elected.”
As a result, Etowah County Circuit Judge William Rhea's
October 2008 decision to subtract “improperly delivered”
absentee ballots from some of the town's municipal
election results has been negated in two of three races.
According to the attorney representing three candidates
involved in the lawsuit, Cedar Bluff will likely have to
go ahead with a runoff election that Supreme Court
justices admitted is “potentially unnecessary.”
“The Supreme Court ruled that you cannot contest an
initial election until after someone has been elected,”
said Centre attorney Shane Givens, whose clients have
challenged dozens of questionable absentee votes. “So
now Cedar Bluff will probably have to hold a runoff
After those election results are certified, Givens
explained, any candidate who wishes to challenge the
vote totals will be able to initiate legal proceedings.
“So, for example, when the runoff is held you will have
Ethel Sprouse running against Steve Lay, who
unfortunately has passed away,” Givens said. “Then, if
Jimmy Wallace wants to contest whether he should have
been in the runoff, he can go ahead with that
Givens said the Supreme Court ruling primarily affects
Dist. 1 candidate Evan Smith, the only person involved
in the election who appealed Judge Rhea's ruling. But he
said other candidates will ultimately benefit from the
ruling because the case has set a precedent in Alabama.
“Never in the state has there been an election contest
that asked the identical legal questions as this one,”
he said. “This case was a first, in that regard.”
Rhea ruled last October that over 30 absentee ballots
picked up at the town hall by agents of several
candidates were illegally distributed and should be
discounted from the final tally.
Rhea tossed out eight absentee votes for Smith, which
left Billie Burkhalter the winner in the three-way
District 1 Town Council race. In District 2, 13 absentee
ballots cast for Donald Sanders were tossed out, leaving
sole challenger Lenora McWhorter the winner.
In the mayor's race, 18 absentee votes cast for the
since-deceased Lay were negated, bumping challenger
Wallace into second place and a runoff with top
With the ruling by the Supreme Court, however, a runoff
election with the initial top two voter-getters in the
mayoral and District 1 races will have to be held before
any legal challenges can proceed.
“Judge Rhea's ruling should stand in the Dist. 2 race
because McWhorter was the outright winner,” Givens said.
Cedar Bluff Mayor Martha Baker said she does not yet
know when the runoff election might be held.
“We will consult with our lawyers,” she said. “I believe
there is a waiting period after the election is
announced before it can take place. We will check on
that and make an announcement next week.”