By Joe Whalen
The Hill County Recount Board declared a tie this morning in the Ward 2 race between Republican Jerry Hanson and incumbent Democrat Rick Pierson for a seat on the Havre City Council.
Votes tallied by five election judges Tuesday night at the Ward 2 polling place, the Highland Park School library, resulted in an apparent 293-292 victory for Pierson an outcome that was confirmed by Thursday's canvass of the ballots.
Shortly after 9 this morning, however, a tally conducted by the recount board revealed a switch: Hanson had defeated Pierson 293-292. Three ensuing hand recounts confirmed the number of votes for each candidate.
But the final step in the process, a check to ensure that each ballot had been officially stamped by election judges, revealed three unstamped ballots. The seals of approval were missing from two of the ballots containing votes for Hanson and one ballot containing a vote for Pierson.
After consulting with the secretary of state's office in Helena, Hill County Clerk and Recorder Diane Mellem cited a state law that rendered the three ballots in question null and void. The County Recount Board then declared the race a tie, with the final count standing at 291-291.
Hanson sat at the conference table across from Pierson representative Ray Peck, a former nine-term member of the state Legislature, for two hours during the recount proceedings and awaited the decision.
"I'm surprised that it turned," Hanson said. "It went from loss, then to win and then tie."
Pierson did not attend the proceedings.
"He's at work," Peck said of Pierson. "That's why he asked me to be down here. He didn't want to miss the payday, I guess. We thought the count was pretty solid."
Both candidates have the option of challenging the decision in District Court, in which case the ward judges would likely be subpoenaed. None of the ward judges were available for comment today.
Hanson said he has not decided whether he'll file a motion in court. If no motions are filed, the City Council is required to appoint either of the two candidates to fill the seat. The City Council currently stands with a 6-1 majority in favor of the Democratic Party.
"If it goes to City Council, I don't think I have a prayer," Hanson said.
According to state law, a ballot "that is not endorsed by the official stamp is void and may not be counted unless the judges agree that the stamp is missing because of their error. The ballot must be marked unstamped by error' on the back and must be initialed by all judges.'"