Residents of Norwood claim that their votes in last year’s neighborhood elections were not counted amid confusion over the election process.
A write-in candidate, Mary Jean LaMay, won the election. Residents have not taken issue with the fact LaMay won, rather that their votes were not counted. In addition to that, residents said the process by which the 99 neighborhood elections are held, is “unworkable.”
LaMay doesn’t see it that way. “I think it’s funny that people think the process is complicated, because it’s not. If people would take an hour to do some research and figure out how it works they would realize it’s very simple,” LaMay said over the phone.
By labeling the process as complicated, LaMay said, it could deter more people from voting in neighborhood elections, which already have low voter turnout.
“It’s not the city’s fault if people don’t realize an election is happening or if they don’t want to vote. The city is doing their job,” LaMay said. She also understands that her neighbors are frustrated with how the election was handled.
Charles Hatcher, who has lived in Norwood since 1977, said he is confused and would like to get answers from the city. “It’s not that I’m worried about the results and who was elected, it’s about how we got to this point. My understanding was there was not going to be an election because the incumbents were in place and running unopposed,” Hatcher said as he sat on a shaded back deck in Norwood.
In situations where an incumbent runs unopposed, as was the case in Norwood, voters can sign a petition ballot.
The Community Resource Division, which is a branch of the mayor’s office, is in charge of handling the 99 neighborhood elections throughout the city. However, there are only seven Community Resource officers that are dispatched to handle the ballots. Norwood residents say the confusion started when they were not informed about the upcoming election.
Beyond that, many of those who did go vote say their votes were not counted. A sign-in sheet from the 2014 election indicates that some votes were counted and some were not.
The first three pages on the sign in sheet have the initials of the polling officer in charge, and a check mark by the name of the voter to signify the vote was counted. On the fourth page and fifth page, there are no initials of a polling officer and no check marks to indicated the ballots were accounted for, leaving eight uncounted votes for the Norwood election.
Hatcher does not believe this to be an isolated incident, rather he sees it as a systemic problem with the way neighborhood elections are carried out. “I believe that Mayor Bell just sees these elections as a nuisance,” Hatcher said gruffly.
Hatcher said he has tried repeatedly to reach out to Bell’s office about this matter but has had no response.
It’s been nearly seven months since the election took place and the city has yet to rectify the situation, Norwood resident Steve Perrett said on Saturday.
“There is this example of what has happened in Norwood, but the real problem is the way the city handles these elections. It’s a huge problem,” Perrett said. He said he had signed a petition for the incumbent, Robert Gilmore’s reelection. Gilmore, however, did not turn in the petition in time for it to be counted in the election.
In order for the election to be legitimized, it must be verified by the Birmingham City Council, which has yet to happen, Perrett said.
Any time a vote is not counted, even if it’s a vote on where to go eat dinner, Perrett continued, it’s a serious problem with the democratic process. “All we want is another election where people are aware of what’s happening and all the votes are actually counted,” Perrett said.
The group in Norwood has not been quiet about their situation. Sarah Bettinger, who has been living in Norwood for five years, said that she has met with members of Bell’s administration. However, she did not leave the meeting feeling like her complaint was taken seriously.
“I signed the petition ballot, but through the actions of somebody else, my vote was not counted,” Bettinger said. “I met with Jarvis Patton [chief of operations with the mayor’s office] and told him about what was happening and what we would like to see happen to rectify the situation. Afterwards, he just looked at me and said, ‘Do you feel better now?’ As if I was just supposed to feel better because I talked to him about it,” Bettinger said.
Patton did not return calls seeking clarification. Neither did Senior Community Resource Representative Kathy Perdue.
“We brought our concerns to the Birmingham City Council and they indicated they had concerns about the process as well,” Bettinger continued. “I believe it’s purposeful that this election hasn’t been certified by them.”
The concerned residents of Norwood have leveled a formal complaint with the city’s attorney Ralph Cook. In the four-page letter, eight residents whose votes were not counted outline the concerns they have over the democratic process and the city’s ability to handle the elections.
“In the Norwood presidential election, a write-in candidate, Mary Jean LaMay, has been declared by the mayor’s office to be the winner over Robert Gilmore, who ran unopposed as the incumbent,” the letter reads. “Ms. LaMay has not been declared the winner by City Council and yet has now been allowed by the [Community Resource Division] to preside as president over three Norwood Neighborhood Association meetings. Repeated attempts by Norwood residents to ask the Mayor’s Office to rectify this situation have largely been ignored.”
The letter goes on to say that a petition has been signed by 200 Norwood residents asking for another election to take place.
“We have suffered demonstrable harm in this matter because our eight votes for Mr. Gilmore, when added to the two votes he received on election day, should have resulted in his victory over Ms. LaMay’s eight total votes,” the letter reads. “The redress we ask for is not to overturn the existing election results as determined by the [Community Resource Division] but, rather, we ask for a new election such that everyone, including Ms. LaMay and all eligible voters, can participate and be satisfied with the result.”
What can be done in the future to simplify the complicated voting system in Birmingham’s 99 neighborhoods? Perrett thinks that the process would work more efficiently with more communication from the Community Resource Division.
“Justice Cook has not ruled on the situation and it’s been about three weeks,” Perrett said. “But the only thing we are asking for is another, fair election. One that people actually realize is happening and that all votes are counted. That’s all we want.”