Commissioner race decided by four votes as write-in surge falls short
McCOOK, Neb. — In a very close contest that see-sawed most of the evening Tuesday between the incumbent and one of her three challengers, the race in the primary election for Red Willow County’s District 3 commissioner seat took an interesting turn when the final three precincts were counted about 10 p.m.
That’s when write-in candidate Charles Fritsche charged forward with votes from two precincts and overtook incumbent Jacque Riener. Then Fritsche lost one vote to an odd voting discrepancy, leaving challenger and top vote-getter Cayla Richards out of reach of an automatic recount.
After preliminary vote counts, Richards wins the District 3 seat with 153 votes. Fritsche came in second with 149 votes and Riener followed in third place with 142 votes. Trailing in fourth place was Andrea Wolfe with 55 votes.
At one point, Fritsche had 150 votes, close enough to Richards — within 2 percent, or 3 votes, of the highest vote getter — that an automatic recount would have been triggered. However, one voter darkened the oval on the line for the write-in candidate, but wrote Fritsche’s name on the blank line for the race below the commissioner’s race on the ballot. After a phone call by county election officials to the Nebraska Secretary of State’s office — the ultimate election official in the state — that one odd vote was disallowed, and Fritsche ended the race with 149 votes, four votes behind Richards.
Election official Tami Teel said this morning that the M650 vote-counting machine kicked out all write-in votes, and then three poll workers counted those separately, checking for darkened ovals and written name(s). Teel said that they turned away just the one write-in vote for Fritsche, allowing those that spelled Fritsche right or came close, or wrote C. Fritsche, or just Fritsche. Close evidently counts. “The spelling had to be recognizable as his name. No ballots were turned away because of the name,” she said.
While votes are not final and official yet and it appears now there will not be an automatic recount of the county commissioner votes, Teel said that Fritsche can request a recount, but he would have to pay the expenses of the canvassing board’s recount.
Richards looked relieved after the votes from the last precinct in were tallied. “It was very close,” she said, wavering between tears and smiles. “The other candidates made it a good race. I’m very thankful for voters coming out.”
Richards works in the county clerk’s office in the courthouse, but plans to leave that job before being sworn in in January. She said she’ll make the county commissioner position her full-time job.
Cayla’s husband, Zach, was among seven candidates interviewed for the District 3 commissioner’s seat when Vesta Dack resigned in April 2017 due to her husband’s health concerns. A committee (determined by state statute) of county treasurer Sue Wesch, county clerk Tami Teel and county attorney Paul Wood selected Riener from among candidates that included Cayla’s husband, Charles Fritsche (the write-in candidate in Tuesday’s election), Jim Coady, Bill McConville and former commissioners Dick Trail and Leigh Hoyt.
Public service runs in the Richards family. Zach served on the Hayes Center village board for six years and was a volunteer firefighter for eight years. His dad, Barry Richards of Hayes Center, was elected Tuesday as the Republican candidate for the District 2 commissioner’s seat in Hayes County. Barry ran for the Nebraska Legislature in 1994 and for Nebraska governor in 2006.
Zach’s mother, Marian, serves on the Hayes Center school board, and his uncle, Alan Kotschwar, is Red Willow County’s sheriff.
Cayla said that she and her husband are passionate about public service. “We feel deeply for this county,” she said. Cayla is a native of Red Willow County — her maiden name is Skaritka — growing up in the Danbury area and graduating from Southwest High School.
Teel said this morning that Red Willow County’s overall voter turn-out in all races was 20 percent.
A total of 1,849 Republicans could have voted for the District 3 commissioner seat and 499 cast votes, for a voter turn-out for that particular race of 27 percent.
Teel said this morning that voting results become official after the canvassing board meets Thursday, starting at 10 a.m.
In the commissioner’s District 3 race, Richards led in 3 precincts, with 30 votes in 1-3, which votes at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church; with 46 votes in 2-1, which votes at the Bureau of Reclamation; and with 9 votes in 3-1, which votes at McCook Christian Church. She also led in absentee ballots, with 29 votes.
Fritsche led in two precincts, with 55 votes in the NW precinct, which votes at the Community Building; and with 30 votes in the SW precinct, which votes at McCook Christian Church.
Riener led with 28 votes in the 1-2 precinct, which votes at Grace Baptist Church.