Roughly 1,300 voters in the Cody area who’d requested absentee ballots are being sent new ones after Park County elections officials discovered an error with the original versions. Around 100 Cody voters who already mailed in their ballots are being asked to vote again.
The mistake only affected a race for the Cody school board, so it will have no impact on voters in the Powell and Meeteetse school districts. Anyone in the Cody area who picks up a ballot between now and the Nov. 6 general election is also in the clear.
The error directed voters to pick too many candidates in a race for the Park County School District No. 6 Board of Trustees.
Three four-year positions and one two-year position are up for election on the Cody board. But as originally printed, the ballots directed voters to pick four candidates for the three full terms.
“I programmed it [the ballot] for ‘vote for four,’ and it should have been ‘vote for three,’” First Deputy Park County Clerk Hans Odde explained to county commissioners last week. Odde added that, “the buck stops with me.”
Between the ballots that had already been sent out and those that had yet to be distributed, he said a total of about 9,800 ballots had to be reprinted, at a cost of about $3,000.
All of the Cody area voters who received the erroneous absentee ballots are getting new ones in the mail.
“Hopefully, we’ll get all 1,300ish of them back,” Odde said.
The new ballots are accompanied by a bright yellow letter from Clerk Colleen Renner that apologizes for the mistake on the Cody school board race and asks voters to destroy their original ballots. If a voter has already mailed their ballot in, they’re asked to vote again by filling out and submitting the new version.
“We’re absolutely doing everything we can to not disenfranchise anyone,” said Odde. “We want, obviously, the most integrity in our elections that we can possibly have.”
The absentee ballots that have been received at the courthouse are still inside sealed envelopes, which have the voter’s name and address on the outside. When a voter sends in a new ballot, elections officials will be able to match up the ballots and discard the old one — ensuring that no one gets two votes, Odde said.
It is possible that some of the dozens of people who have already voted will not send in a new, corrected ballot by Election Day. And if they followed the bad instructions and voted for four candidates, their votes for the Cody school board race will be recorded as an “overvote” and essentially be negated.
Of course, “it could be that they only voted for two or three or one person in that race and their vote will still count,” Odde said. Additionally, their choices for the other races will still count, regardless.
There are believed to be three voters who won’t have the chance to cast a corrected ballot. Those few people voted at the Park County Courthouse and, because their ballots were already fed into a voting machine, there’s nothing that can be done to fix that.
“It’s a bummer,” Odde said, adding that he feels “horrible” about the mistake.
All the incorrect ballots are being segregated and tabulated on a separate voting machine so there’s a clear record if any of the results are challenged, he said.
The Cody school board race is one of the county’s most contested: Three candidates (Nicole Tisthammer, John McCue and Alison Winkler) are running for the single two-year term while nine candidates (incumbent Billy Struemke and challengers Cathy Roes, Brandi Nelson, Brennan Baglio, Joelyn Kelly, Timothy Lasseter, Sheryl Morris, Karen Schipfmann and Julie Johannsen) are running for the three full terms on the board.
The names of two other candidates, Stephanie Liebert and Denise Shirley, are listed as running for the four-year terms (making for 11 names on the ballot), but they decided to withdraw from the race after the original version of the ballots was printed.
Elections officials could have deleted Liebert and Shirley’s names when they reprinted, but “we were not comfortable in changing the ballot any more substantially than we already are,” Odde said.
The “vote for four” error was caught by Park County Commissioner Jake Fulkerson — a former Cody school board member — and he brought it to Odde’s attention on Friday, Sept. 28.
The clerk’s office formulated a plan for dealing with the mistake over the weekend, then began notifying the public on Monday, Oct. 1 — starting with a news release sent to media outlets that evening that was crafted with the help of the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office.
“I think it’s a good fix for the issue,” Commissioner Tim French told Odde last week, applauding the elections staff “for rapidly getting on this and trying to get this right for the voters to have a fair election.”
Park County ran into similar ballot trouble back in 2012.
In that year’s general election, roughly 200 absentee ballots had to be re-sent after a Cody school board race was accidentally left off of South Fork voters’ ballots. Additionally, a Meeteetse Town Council race appeared incorrectly on the primary election ballot that year.