The results of last week’s Phenix City special election to pick a new city councilmember have been called into question because a number of voters were registered at business addresses in the city’s commercial district.
The issue bubbled over at a council work session on Monday when City Manager Wallace Hunter called it a “diabolical scheme by someone” to control the outcome of the special election for one of four city council posts.
Vickey Carter Johnson was the leading vote getter in the election, falling just short of the majority needed to avoid a Dec. 19 runoff. The Muscogee County School District substitute teacher had 240 votes, or 49 percent of the vote, to Baxley Oswalt’s 225 votes, or 46 percent. The race was thrown into a runoff because Steve Franklin picked up 26 votes, or 5 percent.
The election is to fill the vacant term left by the August death of Councilmember Johnnie Robinson Jr.
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“I don’t really know where I stand,” Johnson told council when she spoke as part of the public agenda. “If these allegations are true, then I am truly the winner of this election.”
District 1 Councilmember Steve Bailey took exception to Johnson’s claim that she would have won the election of the votes in question were not allowed.
“I understand what you were saying about you being the winner of the election if this went on,” Bailey said. “Nobody knows who somebody voted for. Those ballots are secret ballots. You could have a hundred people who voted wrong if you are saying they voted wrong. ... There is no way to know who anybody voted for if there is voter fraud — and I am not saying there is or there isn’t.”
The alleged voter fraud was discovered during the Nov. 14 election when some people who are known to live outside of Phenix City, but work there, were seen voting, several people claimed. It was discovered people were registered to vote at addresses of commercial businesses, Hunter said.
“As we started breaking it up, we started getting more and more names,” Hunter said. “You have to then look and say, are we disenfranchising people? Are we allowing people to come in and vote in the district who are outside that district to control the representative of that district. That’s what you have to take a look at.”
Hunter told council he thought it was a planned action to register voters in the district to try ato influence the election.
“What we have here is much bigger than us,” Hunter said. “There is a diabolical scheme by someone.”
Johnson asked if there was a possible criminal investigation based on the allegations of voter fraud.
“That would have to be done by one of three people,” City Attorney Jimmy Graham said. “The Russell County district attorney, the attorney general’s office or the (U.S.) Justice Department.”
The complaint was investigated by the Phenix City Police Department.
After a voter database search, Police Chief Ray Smith said he found a number of people who were registered to vote at business locations in the commercial district. There were initially 32 people identified as registered to vote at a business location and not at a residence, Smith said. That number grew by about 20 on Monday to bring the total to more than 50 voters, Smith said.
The Board of Registrars will be asked to remove the names of those registered at business addresses, Smith said. The city will get a final voter roster on Dec. 14, five days before the runoff, Smith said.
Attorneys representing Phenix City contacted the Alabama Secretary of State’s office to get clarification if someone could register using their place of business and not their residence, Smith said.
“Under no uncertain terms were we advised that a domicile is your place of residence, where you live,” Smith said.
The city was advised to send a letter to the Russell County Board of Registrars and ask that those registered to vote at a business address be removed from the rolls. The letter, written by acting City Clerk Melony Lee, was hand delivered by the police chief to Jimmy Adams of the Board of Registrars.
According to the letter Lee sent to the Board of Registrars the following voters are registered at business locations:
H. Russell Ninas II, 1602 Broad St.; Fred D. Peak, 908 Broad St.; Patricia Lonyay Waldrop, 1680 Broad St.; Christopher Edward Lammons, 1906 Crawford Road; McKenzie Messenger Cooper, 1906 Crawford Road; Hannah Paige Grizzle, 1906 Crawford Road; Michael S. Bowen, 701 13th St.; Jo Ann Ann English, 701 13th St.; Rebecca Bowden Harcourt, 701 13th St.; Matthew Hinton Mixon, 701 13th St.; Margaret Mos Moss, 701 13th St.; Angela Lane Windham, 701 13th St.; Ralph Michael Raiford, 1200 Eighth Ave.; Alan Darrell Wilson, 900 13th St.; Cynthia Diane Coram, 900 13th St.; James Paul Graham Jr., 712 13th St.; Julie S. Graham, 712 13th St.; Deborah Kelly Tamor, 1409 14th St.; Jimmie Willis Tamor, 1409 14th St.; Kelli Dawn Tamor, 1409 14th St.; Theresa Ann Milliken, 1409 14th St.; Brandon Keith Norris, 1409 14th St.; Stanley Dale Gann, 2404 Crawford Road; Bobby Carroll Mathews, 1924 Crawford Road; Paul Lawrence Stamp, 1225 10th Ave.; John Dewy Roberts, 1810 Opelika Road; Janice C. Henderson, 2310 Crawford Road; Rita Riddle Amerson, 1236 B 11th Ave.; Johnny M. Amerson, 1236 B 11th Ave.; Carol Miles Argo, 1501 Fifth Ave.; Steve Desmond Argo, 1501 Fifth Ave.; and Dennis Blane Argo, 1501 Fifth Ave.
The Russell County Board of Registers controls the voting list, Graham told council.
Phenix City attorney Jim McKoon was consulted by the city about the potential voter fraud.
“What happened around here — and I don’t know how it happened — but the idea got to floating around that if you own a business, like I do at 925 Broad Street but I live (in Lee County) that I can pick my spot where I want to register,” McKoon said. “The law, though, is contrary to that. I don’t know how that got to floating around, but there are probably some people in good faith who thought that.”
There is a 2015 case that involves University of Alabama students who lived in Tuscaloosa and sought to vote in an election there.
“The real issue is this,” McKoon said. “The term residence, inhabitant, domicile have all been determined to be the same thing, basically, for voting purposes. That means were you actually reside and intend to remain there. ... If you decide to change your domicile, the burden is on you to show that it has actually been changed.”
All three candidates addressed council during the work session.