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Elkins official addresses vote counting delays

ELKINS — Elkins City Clerk Jessica Sutton took a moment during this week’s Elkins City Council meeting to address the reasons why counting the ballots in Tuesday’s municipal election took “significantly longer” than on past election nights.

The election totals were not released by the city until 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, and no results from any wards were posted until well after 11 p.m. Tuesday. The polls closed at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

“After hearing a number of inaccurate comments surrounding the election and recognizing that a majority of people don’t have the benefit of insight that election officials and poll workers have, I wanted to provide a brief overview of what election day in Elkins looks like from the inside,” Sutton said in reading from a prepared statement during Thursday night’s city council meeting.

“Trained election officials report to their assigned polling places well before dawn, spending about an hour posting required signage and preparing all the needed materials to be ready for voting to begin at 6:30 a.m. This year, as you know, voting was heavy, with more than 1,000 ballots cast across our five wards. On top of the challenges posed by this high turnout, there was the added requirement of observing pandemic precautions.

“Because some of the more widespread misunderstandings had to do with vote counting, let me explain how that works,” Sutton said. “The most important thing to understand is that all vote counting happens at the polling places. I have no direct involvement, although I do provide technical support to the poll workers if they have any questions about the vote counting process or encounter any problems.

“Because we operate as a single board, election workers are not allowed to begin counting during the day but must wait until polls close, at 7:30 p.m. Then they begin tallying the votes, a process that is performed, observed, doublechecked, and attested to by all four officials assigned to the given polling place. After counting is complete, this same team then completes extensive documentation.

“They post one copy of the results on the door of the polling place and seal two more copies in separate envelopes, one for me and one to be sent, unopened and under seal, to the Secretary of State’s office,” Sutton said. “All ballots are sealed inside the ballot boxes, where they remain unexamined until the canvass five days later. Finally, two poll-workers from each polling place escort these materials to city hall, where they release them to me after a documented turn-in process.

“This year, with the high number of candidates (16) and three ballot referenda, the counting process took significantly longer than it has in other recent elections.

“One popular misconception this year had to do with the cancelation of the traditional public gathering at city hall for the announcement of vote counts,” the city clerk stated. “It seems that some people in Elkins mistakenly believed that this event was an opportunity for the public to observe the actual vote counting.

“As I’ve explained, by the time poll workers return to city hall, all counting is complete. All that has ever happened at this event is the public announcement of the resulting tallies, which this year, for safety reasons, we decided to do online and for any accredited media who wished to be present.

“As for me, the city’s chief and only election administrator, I also rise well before dawn on election day and spend the day visiting each polling place either as a random check-in or in response to requests; fielding lots of phone calls — from poll workers primarily, but also from citizens and the Secretary of State’s office; and accessing various resources in response to inquiries,” Sutton said.

“My day ends at city hall where I receive all the election materials delivered by two poll workers from each ward. We review them together to be sure they’ve completed and returned everything. After all the materials are secured as prescribed by state code, the poll workers are released for the day. To announce results to the public, I then read from a copy of the ‘certificate of votes cast’ that was provided to me by the poll workers detailing the votes for each candidate and ballot measure.

“So, you can see this is a rigorous and exacting process that requires a great deal of focus and stamina, which from my perspective was executed brilliantly by everyone involved,” Sutton said.

“I would like to particularly thank my poll workers, who work an exceptionally long day to provide one of the most essential and unsung roles in our entire election system. We should all be grateful for the people who step forward each election to provide this service. I certainly am.”

After Sutton read her prepared statement, Mayor Van Broughton said, “Our city clerk, I want to give her a big shout out for the great job she did with the election. I know she put in a lot of long hours. And also, I thank all the poll workers, for working at least 12, 15 hours a day, wasn’t it?”

“It was 20 for me,” Sutton said, “so it was probably 17 to 18 for them.”

The next Elkins City Council meeting will be March 19 at 7 p.m. at the Phil Gainer Community Center.

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