By Mannix Porterfield
For the Daily Telegraph
Did voter confusion, fed by errant advice from poll clerks, figure into the failure of the sheriffs’ succession amendment in Tuesday’s election?
Rudi Raynes-Kidder thinks there is a distinct possibility of that and wants some answers.
Specifically, the executive director of the West Virginia Sheriffs’ Association wants to know exactly what poll workers told voters when they sought clarification of the constitutional amendment on the ballot.
“People said the language was confusing, and I agree,” Kidder said. “I think it was, too.
“I had to read it twice before I knew what I was voting for. What about someone who never heard it before? In one particular message I got from someone who had talked to someone who went to the polls and didn’t know how to vote. A poll worker told them incorrectly, that if you voted ‘no,’ you were for it. The poll workers were telling them the wrong thing.”
As it appeared on the ballot, the question was simply, “for” or “against” an amendment that would have stricken the two-term limit for West Virginia sheriffs.
“I want to know what poll workers were told to say if they were asked about the issue,” Kidder said.
“Apparently, it wasn’t clear in some places.”
Back in 1963, voters agreed to let sheriffs serve two terms instead of one, and the most recent proposed change came in the 1994 election to allow unlimited terms, and it was soundly rejected, Kidder pointed out.
Only a simple majority was needed. Unofficial returns from this week’s election gave the proposed change 265,266 votes, or 48 percent, while 292,660 other voters said no, for 52 percent.
Decades ago, before deputies underwent certified police training, anyone who helped elect a sheriff was rewarded with a uniform, gun, badge, and cowboy hat — all the accouterments of a deputy’s job. The arrangement lent itself to the hiring of political hacks and potential corruption within the sheriff’s department.
“That’s why it’s been soundly rejected in the past,” Kidder said of the succession amendment.
“And that’s not true any more.”
Over the years, the sheriff’s role has changed dramatically, and the county departments are now considered top-flight law enforcement agencies, Kidder noted.
“It’s not an easily corrupted office now,” she said.
“Officers go through the academy. They’ve got the Civil Service code. You’re audited every year. You just can’t be a hack and be in that job. I do want to know what language the poll workers were given. I’m starting to hear stories that kind of scared me. I know the language was confusing, so you know there had to be other people around the state going, ‘What am I voting on?’ What was the script given to the poll workers?”
Kidder planned to consult with the association’s legal counsel to get more information about the advice dished out at the polls.
“Apparently, it was not correct,” she said.
Whether the association will take another stab at removing term limits hasn’t been decided.
“It’s not something the board has voted to do yet,” Kidder said.
Barring a special election next year, the next opportunity presumably would be the primary of 2014, although Kidder says a general election is preferable.
“I don’t see why we wouldn’t pursue it in the future,” she said.
“That’s something the newly elected sheriffs will have to vote on. It will be their decision. We will go with whatever they choose to do.”
Kidder said she drew encouragement from the outcome, since nearly half of the voters favored the idea of unlimited terms.
“It was closer than ever before,” she said. “Now people are actually supportive of it.”