Cowden ‘election’ would require response

NEW CUMBERLAND–In an election year when all eyes are on who will be the next president, Hancock County officials have their own preoccupation–what to do if Mark Cowden is elected sheriff.

Cowden, a retired sheriff’s lieutenant and the Republican candidate for sheriff, was convicted on Oct. 17 of using excessive force on DUI suspect Ryan Hamrick in January 2015.

A Wheeling jury found Cowden guilty of one count of deprivation of rights under color of law, a felony which, according to West Virginia Code, disqualifies him from holding elective office.

Cowden’s name remains on the ballot and his campaign signs are visible throughout Hancock County, indicating a measure of support for the veteran lawman. He is running against the Democratic incumbent, Sheriff Ralph Fletcher.

Cowden’s name was not removed from the ballot because his conviction came after the general election cutoff date–84 days before the Nov. 8 general election, said Briana Wilson, spokeswoman for West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie E. Tennant.

Two scenarios are likely if Cowden wins the election:

* Fletcher could contest the election based on Cowden’s ineligibility.

* Fletcher could choose not to contest the election, in which case the Hancock County commission would have to fill the vacancy.

In the first scenario, Fletcher would have to file a notice to contest the election, along with an affidavit, within 10 days of the election results being certified, according to state code.

“The candidate that would contest the election would be the losing candidate. Losing does not prohibit him from doing the challenge,” Wilson said.

Such a challenge would likely be handled by the Hancock County Circuit Court in the same manner as a civil lawsuit, according to the code. The court would have to hold a hearing and declare a winner within three months of the election.

In the second scenario, the office would become vacant once Fletcher’s term expires at the end of the year, and commissioners would have to appoint a temporary successor until they find a permanent one, according to the code.

The vacancy would have to be filled within 30 days by someone of the same political party as the officeholder vacating the office, according to the code. That person would serve until an unexpired term election is held in 2018, Wilson said.

“The intent of the legislation is to eliminate the expense of holding special elections. Instead, the unexpired term election is held in conjunction with the next regularly-scheduled primary and general election,” she said.

Whoever won the 2018 election would serve until the end of the original four-year term of office, according to the code.

Cowden’s sentencing date has not yet been scheduled, but he faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. His attorney, Michael Nogay, has not said whether he plans to appeal.