North Las Vegas officials face decision on bad ballot

Does one bad ballot spoil the bunch?

That’s the question North Las Vegas officials must grapple with after learning that an ineligible vote was cast in the valley’s tightest municipal election race last week.

The ballot, cast in the heated Ward 4 contest between incumbent City Councilman Richard Cherchio and dentist Wade Wagner, throws into question the race’s outcome.

Cherchio lost the election by a single vote.

A voter who was not eligible to cast a ballot in the race was allowed to do so, Larry Lomax, Clark County registrar of voters, confirmed Monday.

“It was human error by a polling person,” Lomax said. “It was a significant error that was pretty inexcusable.”

Officials don’t know whether the ineligible vote was for Wagner or Cherchio.

“Once anybody votes, the vote is mixed in with other ballots,” Lomax said. “We can never tie a ballot back to a (specific) voter.”

The City Council must decide among options including certifying the results anyway or ordering a new election for Ward 4.

Such a decision could prove problematic because the council includes Cherchio; Mayor Shari Buck, who has publicly endorsed Wagner; and Anita Wood and Robert Eliason, who have supported Cherchio’s campaign.

“If I had to guess, unfortunately I would guess in the end it will wind up in court regardless of the decision the City Council makes,” Lomax said.

The voter in question was registered to vote in the city’s Ward 3, Lomax said. The voter recently had moved into Ward 4 but had not yet updated his registration. He showed up at the polling place with identification showing his new address.

The election worker “erroneously thought the person was allowed to vote there because he had moved into the precinct,” Lomax said.

The county discovered the mistake Thursday while auditing the election results. The county informed the city of the error Friday.

North Las Vegas has retained attorney Matt Griffin, former deputy secretary of state for elections, to advise council members of their options at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. An outside attorney was retained in order to avoid any perceived conflict, the city said.

“Every election there’s going to be a certain level of error because you have humans involved,” Griffin said.

He added that there have been no allegations of fraud or intentional misconduct on the part of the voter who cast an ineligible vote.

“It’s just a mistake, and mistakes always happen in elections,” Griffin said. “In a perfect world, he (the voter) would have been told to return to his previous precinct” to vote.

In Nevada, if you move within a year of an election and don’t update your registration, you’re still eligible to vote in your previous precinct, he said.

How much the cash-strapped city would have to pay to redo the election in Ward 4 had not yet been tabulated Monday. The city also did not yet know how much the June 7 general election cost. The city’s primary election cost $116,491. North Las Vegas’s overall budget for the primary and general is $261,920.

Cherchio, who got 1,830 votes compared with Wagner’s 1,831, promised to seek a recount in the race before the ineligible vote was discovered. He cannot seek the recount until after election results are canvassed by the City Council.

Bradley Schrager, an attorney for Cherchio, said Monday that the campaign had not yet decided which of the City Council’s options it would support.

“We’re still weighing our options,” he said.

Todd Bice, an attorney for Wagner, said “the more prudent option” would be for the council to certify the election, warts and all.

“A brand-new election seems awfully wasteful of public resources to determine whether this alleged one improper vote even mattered,” he said. “Let the councilman take it into the recount process.”

If either candidate is dissatisfied with the recount results, he “can go to court, and the court can decide if a re-election should be held,” Bice said.

Buck said she will wait to hear Griffin’s Wednesday presentation before deciding which option to support. She didn’t see a need to recuse herself from the decision.

“My main priority is to make sure the integrity of the election is upheld and that voters are not disenfranchised,” she said.

The results of the city’s other races — City Council Ward 2 and Municipal Court Department 1 — should be canvassed as usual Wednesday, the city said.

Cherchio, 64, was appointed to the Ward 4 seat in 2009 when Buck was elected mayor. Wagner, 48, won the seat after a hard-fought race that was overshadowed by the war between Cherchio and the city’s public safety unions. The police and fire unions aggressively opposed Cherchio, even campaigning against him door-to-door, because the councilman voted in favor of cuts to public safety to save money.

The city, which faces a $30.3 million shortfall in fiscal year 2012, last month adopted a budget that includes slashing 258 positions across city departments, including those of 40 firefighters and 18 police officers.

City Council members serve four-year terms and earn $41,827 a year.

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis@review or 702-383-0285.

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