Among the four election challenges being heard by the Alabama Republican Party on June 26 is the race for House District 28 between former State Rep. Mack Butler (R-Rainbow City) and incumbent Rep. Gil Isbell (R-Gadsden).
Butler was declared the winner of the Republican Primary on May 24 but told the Alabama Political Reporter that “Gil Isbell has challenged me.”
The basis for the dispute is the confusion surrounding the Etowah County Board of Registrars implementation of the Alabama Legislature’s constitutionally mandated redistricting that passed in the fall of 2021. This redistricting impacted House Districts 28 and 29, as well as Etowah Commission District 5.
Some voters who should have received ballots for HD 28 did not, and the same occurred in the voting for HD 29.
The situation was brought to the attention of the Etowah County Board of Registrars by Butler and original reporting by 1819 News prior to the election when errors were identified in the absentee ballots people were receiving.
Butler said that there were 47 provisional ballots in the race that were accepted. He won 32 of those while Isbell won 15, raising Butler’s margin of victory.
“We won by 219 votes,” Butler said and noted that there were not enough of these incorrect ballots to have “significantly affected this race.”
“Isbell is asking to be declared the winner and, failing that, to have a do-over,” Butler said.
Isbell told 1819 News that he is “still trying to surmise” the 220 votes needed to give him the victory, stating, “There was no voter fraud here. There were a lot of unfortunate errors.
“It makes you question the integrity of the whole process.”
Butler has served two terms in the Legislature, two terms as Etowah County Republican Party Chairman, and on the Etowah County Board of Education before that. He has been a fixture in Etowah County politics for over 25 years.
Isbell was elected in 2018 in the district formerly represented by State Rep. Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) who did not run again. His win in 2018 was a pickup for Republicans. Isbell is seeking a second term.
Isbell said of his challenge, “It really comes down to election integrity.”
He believes that not only did some people who live in District 28 not get an HD28 ballot, but Isbell also said he believes that some people were given HD28 ballots who should have received something else.
“They moved a lot of voters’ [assigned polling place],” Isbell said.
Butler stated that he does not know how many people were affected by ballot errors on primary election day.
“We can’t get a figure from the Secretary of State’s office,” he said. “It was probably about a thousand, but only 122 of those people voted. If [Isbell] got all of them - and he didn’t - it is still not enough to make a difference.”
In the unofficial results, only 5,102 people voted in the GOP primary in HD28. In neighboring HD29, a reported 7,930 people voted in an open race between Mark Gidley and Jamie Grant. Grant is challenging Gidley’s narrow victory there.
Isbell said that he did not want the committee to declare him the victor but that he felt that there should be a do-over of the Republican primary.
“The maps we were given were wrong,” Isbell said. “Steve Reagan qualified to run in District 29, but then they called him back and said that he was in District 28. He said ‘Gil, I am not going to run against you,’ and then on election day, he got a District 29 ballot.
“There are people who showed up at the polls and were given a ballot that did not have me or some other candidate they wanted to vote for, [so they] called their family and told them not to vote. Their whole family winded up not voting.”
“The turnout was extremely low,” Isbell said. “House District 29 had about 2,500 more votes.”
Butler cannot remember a situation like his election challenge occurring before.
“According to an article in the paper,” Butler told 1819 News, “there was [an election challenge heard by the Republican party] in 1990.
“Isbell conceded this race both publicly and privately – that used to mean something."
Butler said that he has been told that the challenge will be heard virtually on the 25th of this month.
“It would be wise not to find [in favor] for any challengers,” Butler said. “That’s a dangerous road. You're risking turning off the voters by overturning election results.”
In some races, especially Sen. Tom Whatley’s (R-Auburn) one-vote loss to Auburn city Councilman Jay Hovey, it appears that Democrats voting in the Republican primary played a factor.
“The first thing I plan to do when I get back to Montgomery is to introduce legislation to close off our primaries,” Butler said.
Phil Williams is a former Etowah County Republican Party Chairman. He also served two terms as a state senator representing Etowah County. He is an attorney and the host of Right-Side Radio in Huntsville.
Williams told 1819 News that he did not recall this happening during his time with Alabama Republican Party.
“This is the year of the election challenge,” Williams said. “There are just so many close races this year.
“[Isbell] doesn’t have significant grounds to appeal. He has to identify the specific votes that would give him the win to uphold his challenge. Gil hasn’t done that.”
Even if Isbell is able to identify the 220 votes needed to give him the win, and the committee agrees, that still might not be enough to give him the GOP nomination.
“I represented a lady who lost a city council seat by one vote,” Williams said. “I identified the votes that were wrongly not given to her and the judge agreed. When they opened up the ballots, however, other votes were found and she still lost by one vote. I won the case and lost the election.”
There are time constraints related to a do-over of the Republican primary in any of these election contests.
Williams said, “The Secretary of State has to be notified within sixty days of the candidates on the ballot before an election. We don’t want to do anything that would interfere with the general election [on Nov. 8].”
Isbell said if the committee does not grant his request for a new Republican primary, his “intent is not to go to court.”
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