Marion ballot box opened

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 25, 2005

The controversial and contested Marion mayor’s election is on the fast-track to trial.

Circuit Judge Marvin Wiggins recently issued a court order to open for inspection the sealed election materials from last August’s mayor’s race, in which Anthony J. Long defeated Robert D. Bryant. The order and the subsequent inspection, which was begun at Marion’s City Hall Tuesday and Wednesday, mark the final phase of the “discovery” process of Bryant’s contest of the election.

In addition to the order to unseal the ballot box, Wiggins has also set a trial date for the contest of May 16. The current deadline for the “discovery” process is April 6.

James Barnes, the Marion attorney representing Long, says that while Wiggins has set a pace for the case that’s quicker than he’d prefer, he can also understand the judge’s motivations.

“We’re not in any particular hurry. We’re taking less time than we would with lawsuits that are just as complex as this one is,” Barnes said. “But it’s an election contest, and the law gives it a priority. People want to know who their mayor is, who their councilmen are. The timetable is not unreasonable.”

How Wiggins rules on May 16 may very well hinge on what evidence Bryant and his representation can uncover during the ballot inspection. Bryant is likely seeking evidence, such as voter addresses from outside city limits, that would allow him to challenge some of the many absentee ballots cast for Long. Bryant took more votes at the polls, 640 to 471, but Long defeated him in the absentee box 649 to 357 to win the election.

“If 42 or 43 votes were proven illegal,” Barnes said, “that would get [Long’s total] down to where there would be a run-off.”

Barnes, who took part in the inspection alongside Bryant, his representatives, and other supporters of Long, acknowledged that the occasional odd ballot could be successfully challenged. But he doubted there was enough of them to make a difference in whether Long would remain mayor.

“There was a handful,” he said, citing the example of one absentee voter whose copy of identification showed a home address rather than the business address the voter was registered under. “They may prevail on that one. But there aren’t many of these, certainly not enough to affect the outcome of the election.”

“Mr. Long won the election fair and square,” Barnes added. “Mr. Bryant and his supporters ought to take their good old-fashioned butt-whipping and go home.”

Despite the animosity present between the two camps (and exemplified by his previous statement), Barnes said that there were few problems with the two parties working side-by-side.

“It basically went well for two days,” he said. “There was a minor disagreement on Tuesday morning about who should be there. The judge’s order said a candidate and his ‘representatives,’ and there’s two or three ways to interpret that…but other than that, it went pretty well.”

There is still work yet to do to complete the inspection, which according to Barnes grew “tedious” with the repeated Xeroxing and examination of hundreds of ballots. But he added that he was happy the contest was one step closer to being completed.

“There was a lot of hoop-de-do about it, but in the end it was a smooth process,” he said. “Hopefully soon we can get on with trying the contest…ultimately, Mr. Long will remain the mayor.”

Bryant did not return calls made to his office Thursday.

The Marion contest may be being watched with especial interest by those in Greensboro, where Vanessa Hill is challenging J.B. Washington’s victory in that city’s mayor’s race. After Wiggins recused himself from the case, the case was turned over to District Judge William Shashy, who has yet to rule on whether the Greensboro materials should be unsealed. Briefs prepared by the attorneys for Hill and Washington to explain why the ballots should or should not be inspected were due to Shashy’s office Thursday afternoon.