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Election Commission chooses acceptable names for write-in votes

By Brad Hicks

Mistakes will happen.

Because the office of Unicoi County Assessor of Property will be decided by a write-in vote in the August general election, there is a high likelihood that some voters may misspell the name of their candidate of choice. Others may write in only a first or last name. Still others may simply enter the initials of the candidate they have selected.

On Thursday, the Unicoi County Election Commission took action to determine what will be considered an acceptable vote and what will not, as the panel created a list of approved name variations for the write-in candidates seeking the office of Unicoi County Assessor of Property.

Administrator of Elections Sarah Bailey opened Thursday’s discussion by covering with the commission information she received during a training session with the state Coordinator of Elections. According to information provided by Bailey, if the write-in candidate’s name is misspelled, the voter’s intent must be honored. If the voter’s intent – who he or she wished to vote for – can be “reasonably ascertained” despite the misspelling, the election commission must give effect to that voter’s intention.

And Bailey said local election officials are anticipating misspellings.

“We’ve had write-ins before, but never on this scale because there’s always been certified candidates who are on the ballot,” Bailey said. “As you can see on the sample ballot, it simply says, ‘No Candidate Qualified,’ and the only option under Assessor of Property is write-in. So we know we’ll have a whole lot more write-ins this time, and I think the more we can do to sort of set our guidelines on the front end, will decrease any questions or concerns or issues later on.”

The Unicoi County Election Commission’s counting board, a four-member board made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, will be responsible for reviewing the tapes printed out from voting machines to see what voters have written and make sure that the voter has placed the write-in under the Assessor of Property box on the ballot.

“That is the only office that has certified write-in candidates and then, of course, (the counting board) is going to look at the name,” Bailey said prior to the Election Commission’s Thursday vote. “They will have paper tally sheets, and they’ll be tallying those names. What they need from you all is guidance on what is an appropriate name, what’s not an appropriate name.”

Bailey said the key, according to information provided by the state, is a write-in candidate’s last name. She said if a voter writes in the candidate’s first name only or a first name with a last name initial, this will not count as a vote.

“They can’t count that if someone just writes in a first name,” Bailey said. “However, there’s a lot of wiggle room in first and last names, especially the last names.”

Although their names will not appear on the Aug. 4 ballot, four candidates – John Day, Teresa Kinsler, Alan “Rocky” McInturff and Richard Seward – are seeking the office of Unicoi County Assessor of Property.

Bailey presented the commission with a list of variations that would count as votes for each candidate.

For Day, acceptable variations will include Johnny Day, John Daye, J. Day, Jon Day, John Dae, Johnnie Day, Day and the last name spelling of Da. At Day’s suggestion, last name spellings of Dai, Daie and Diaz were also added to the acceptable variations list.

For Kinsler, acceptable variations will include Teresa Kinser, Teresa Kinslre, Terry Kinsler, Kinsler, Theresa Kinsler, Teresa Kensler, Teresa Cinsler and T. Kinsler. At Kinsler’s suggestion, the last name variation of Kinsley was added to the list.

Acceptable variations for McInturff will include Rocky McInnturff, Alan McInturff, McInturff, Rocky McInturf, Rocky MacInturff, R. McInturff, J. McInturff, J.A. McInturff and J. Alan McInturff.

For Seward, acceptable variations will include Richard Sewerd, Rick Seward, Rich Seward, Seward, Richard Steward, Richard Sewart, Ricky Seward and R. Seward. The last name variation Stewart was also added to the list.

Both Bailey and Election Commission Chairman Thomas Reeves emphasized that even if a candidate’s last name is misspelled, the last name must be written in for the vote to count.

“We want to be clear that first names do not count or any variation of a first name with a last initial or just initials for a candidate,” Bailey said.

Variations not countable as votes for Day will include John D., Jon D., Johnny D., Johnnie D., John, Jon, Johnny, Johnnie and J.D. For Kinsler, unacceptable variations will include Teresa K., Theresa K., Teresa, Theresa, Terry and T.K. Unacceptable variations for McInturff will include Rocky M., Alan M., Allen, Rocky, Alan and R.M. Variations not countable for Seward will include Richard S., Rich S., Rick S., Ricky S., R.S., Richard, Rick, Ricky and Rich.

The list approved by the Unicoi County Election Commission on Thursday is not the “end all, be all,” as the counting board does have discretion in determining whether variations not on the approved list will count as votes for a particular candidate, Bailey said. She said if the counting board comes across a variation not on the list approved Thursday, that board can vote to accept the variation as a “reasonable vote” for a candidate. She said poll workers can explain the write-in process to voters but cannot provide candidate names or correct spellings. Bailey also said she would check with the state to see if a list of those seeking the Assessor of Property office could be displayed around polling places.

“It’s important that we focus on the intent – that’s the key word – of the voter,” Reeves said.

The race for assessor became a write-in only contest after the Unicoi County Republican Party Executive Committee on May 28 opted not to appoint a candidate for the Aug. 4 ballot.

The need to appoint a candidate for the August ballot was created after Margaret Seward, who died the morning of the March 1 primary and whose widower is seeking the office, won the race for assessor of property in the county primary. This created a vacancy that the Executive Committee could have filled had it opted to do so.

Wayne Peterson, another candidate on the primary ballot in the assessor’s race, died on Feb. 16. McInturff was the third candidate on the primary ballot.

Peterson was appointed by the Unicoi County Commission to serve as assessor of property in April 2015 following the retirement of previous assessor Patsy Bennett. Following his death, the Commission in March appointed Kinsler as the interim assessor of property.