The margin between Joseph Elison and Willie Billings in the June primary election was a razor-thin seven votes after all the ballots were counted earlier this month. After a recount, Elison’s lead increased to 10 ballots, but the fight over the GOP nomination in HD72 may not be over.
Washington County commissioners certified Elison’s win during a raucous meeting on Tuesday that featured allegations of voting irregularities both from Billings and his supporters, and a not-so-thinly veiled threat of legal action from Billings, who tried to force a hand recount of the results.
“In Washington County, we’ve never had a recount in a primary election. We have never had a recount in a general election. When we got a request for the recount in District 72, we needed to recount the whole election,” Washington County Clerk Susan Lewis said, noting it was impossible to recount the results from one race.
During the recount process, Lewis says they added four ballots excluded from the initial count but found them valid. Three of those went to Elison, resulting in the 10-vote gap.
It is not the addition of valid ballots that drew the ire of Billings and his supporters but the post-recount audit. The county randomly selected just under 3% of the ballots to see if they matched up with the machine count, which they did.
Billings claimed something was amiss because the vote totals from the audit sample favored him by a 61-39% margin, yet he lost by fewer than a dozen votes, which could have suggested a potential problem with the counting machines. He asked for a hand recount of the race, something commissioners had no legal authority to do even if they wanted to.
“I’m not doing this to win this election. I would love to win so bad my teeth ache. The reality is there’s mass dissent in Washington County and across the country and lack of voter faith and trust in our election systems, specifically in the machines and our leadership,” Billings alleged.
As Tuesday’s meeting wore on, Commissioner Victor Iverson and others repeatedly explain there were wild swings in support for both men depending on which part of the county was examined. The vote in the Toquerville area was overwhelmingly for Elison, while Billings had enormous support in Hurricane, where his wife Nanette is the mayor. In several precincts, the difference between the two men was just one or two votes. Billings brushed those explanations away, insistent that he may have been cheated out of the win.
“We tried to explain to everybody that you cannot change processes and rules in the middle of an election. We didn’t have a process to do a hand count,” Iverson said during a phone interview on Wednesday.
“We live in interesting times when people are very skeptical about their institutions,” he added. “We’ve tried to be open about our processes and explain how election rolls work, and quality control, but sometimes those explanations are not necessarily heard as well as we would like.”
Commissioner Adam Snow said he had confidence in the election results but worried for America’s future if people did not trust that elections were on the up and up.
“If we don’t have faith in free and fair elections, then buy bullets and canned food because that is where the country is headed at that point,” Snow said.
Before Tuesday’s certification of the election results, Billings was already threatening legal action. A letter sent to Washington County officials by Billings’ legal counsel raised questions about the “inconsistency and unreliability with vote-counting technology.” The letter demanded commissioners not certify the vote and order a hand recount.
“My office has reviewed the letter, and it is without merit. There’s nothing in this letter that persuades me that the canvass shouldn’t go forward,” Assistant County Attorney Devin Snow said.
Commissioners did just that, voting to accept the results of the recount on Tuesday as many in the audience jeered the decision.
“You’re booing us for following the law,” Commissioner Gil Almquist told the crowd.
“Well, that was disappointing,” Iverson added glumly as many in the crowd angrily filed out of the room.
Billings said Wednesday he plans to file suit to challenge the election results, alleging an error in counting votes. He plans to ask for a hand recount and compare those results with the machine tally.