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COLUMN: OK, so here’s how you contest an election

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I don’t have the ear of the president, but I do have some success in contesting an election.

It happened some 40 years ago when I was at a small newspaper in Marion, Kansas.

Marion is a town of about 1,700 people, mostly farmers and ranchers.

The newspaper office sat across the street from the county courthouse, a giant limestone building. On the front lawn of the courthouse was an old Civil War cannon, its barrel pointed at the newspaper.

I knew a lot of people in the courthouse, the treasurer, sheriff, tax assessor — all the major players. I was drinking buddies with the director of the Noxious Weed Department, if you can believe such an office existed. It did then, for sure. If it did its job, maybe it no longer exists.

I was particularly close to the county clerk, Marquetta Eilerts, as smart and kind-hearted a person as anyone you’d ever want to meet. She knew everything, but she exhibited not a hint of boastfulness. Countless times, she patiently helped me sift through records for my articles. She also served as the county’s chief election officer.

In 1983, there was a local election for school board. When I went to vote, the precinct worker handed me a paper ballot for whatever races I was permitted to vote on. A day after casting my ballot, I learned there had also been a contest for the board of directors of the Cottonwood Valley Drainage District. I hadn’t received a ballot for that race.

The Cottonwood Valley Drainage District manages drainage for land along the Cottonwood River. It is governed by three elected board members and operates on an annual budget of around $5,000 which it collects in property taxes.

I discovered that I happened to live within the district, so I inquired from elections officials why I didn’t get a ballot. They said that only those who own personal property within the district were eligible to vote for board members.

At the time, I owned a 12-inch, black-and-white TV and a car. I paid little attention to the TV, but I paid ad valorem taxes on the car.

Marion County Courthouse

The Marion County Courthouse 

So, I filed suit in Marion County District Court. I filed the papers myself —no attorney. Researching the law (from books, because there were no computers back then), I learned I had to provide evidence that I had been deprived of my right to a ballot — which I had — and that my vote would have made a difference in the Drainage District election — which it would not have.

The top vote recipient garnered maybe 12 votes, and the third-place board member received four. However, if I found other qualified voters who had gone to the polls and had not been issued a ballot, I could make a case that our combined votes might have affected the results.

Soon after filing the suit, I received a call from the Kansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union offering free legal counsel.

Here’s one thing about Marion, Kansas. The quickest way to make friends there is to decline an offer from the ACLU.

I thanked them and hung up.

A couple weeks later, I appeared in court, facing off against the county attorney.

Doug Westerhaus was the ideal for a rural county attorney — tall, smart and well-spoken with a friendly Kansas accent. His father had served as a district judge there for years.

If he’d have really wanted to, Doug Westerhaus could have murdered me in court.

Instead, he lobbed a few softball objections at me as I presented my case before the judge. I argued that the election had been held with as much attention to detail as a high school cheerleading contest, and I presented records showing some 13 qualified voters who went to the polls and had not received a ballot for the Drainage District election.

Westerhaus made his case, too, arguing that not one of the voters, including me, had requested the special ballot at the time.

After hearing our arguments, District Judge Melvin Gradert ruled that the county had conducted the election based on faulty registration records, and he ordered that another election be held to decide the three Drainage District seats.

Less than a month later, the county conducted the special election. Voting stations were set up in the courthouse lobby. From my vantage point across the street, turnout did not seem heavy.

At 6:53 p.m. on election night, my desk phone rang. It was the county clerk.

“Pat, this is Marquetta. You know, I’ve come to enjoy working with you these past couple of years because you seem dedicated. I have never minded going the extra mile to help you — but, if you don’t get your butt over here and vote in the next five minutes, I’ll never have anything more to do with you!”

I raced across the street.

It was a write-in ballot because no one ever cared enough to pay a filing fee for the positions. Each board member received $25 a month in salary. I think I wrote in the name of the Noxious Weed Department director.

Anyway, the next day, Marquetta called me with the results.

There had been about 18 votes cast. Three had my name on them.

It was a shock. It was also just enough to make me the third-place finisher, sweeping me into office as a member of the Cottonwood Valley Drainage District Board of Directors.

I served two months, then resigned. I don’t think reporters should hold public office.

Anyway, I used part of the $50 I collected in salary to buy a round for the Noxious Weed Department guy and anyone else who stopped by our table — my way of giving back to the taxpayers.

Pat Fox is the Managing Editor of Appen Media Group.

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