BEND, Ore. (AP) — Last votes were coming in Tuesday in a recall election for a judge in the sparsely populated Oregon county where an armed group took over a federal wildlife refuge earlier this year.
Judge Steve Grasty, Harney County’s top administrator, faces the special election because he refused to let the activists use a county building to hold a meeting. Supporters of the recall say Grasty violated rights to free speech and freedom of assembly.
The first recall effort in this starkly beautiful high-desert county in 21 years underscores divisions that remain more than four months after the 41-day occupation ended Feb. 11.
“I certainly hope, after tonight, we can work as a community to heal, let the past go, and move forward in a positive way,” Harney County Clerk Derrin E. “Dag” Robinson said.
The group took over the refuge in opposition to federal government overreach.
Most signs in a nearby town and on ranch fence posts are for Grasty, who, even if the referendum fails, retires in December.
By late Tuesday afternoon, Robinson had collected 64 percent of the roughly 4,400 ballots that were sent out. Voters can cast ballots at drop-off boxes until 8 p.m. Tuesday, at which time the last ballots will all be collected and counted. In Oregon, voters can mail or drop off their ballots. There are no polling stations.
The last recall election, in June 1995 against another county judge and a county commissioner, resoundingly failed, Robinson noted. The recall petition had complained, among other things, that the judge had “purchased luxury automobiles with the taxes of people struggling to survive.”
“They were Fords, Crown Victorias,” Robinson, who that year worked for the county clerk’s office as an intern, remembered with a laugh. “They were not luxury cars.”
The issues this time are rooted in something more serious — seizure of federal property by occupiers from out of state, and the standoff turned deadly. Their presence, and of hundreds of law enforcement officers, put Burns, which is the county seat, and other areas on edge.
The headquarters of the 188,000-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 30 miles south of Burns, is still closed, though refuge roads are open. Refuge manager Chad Karges said he expects the headquarters to reopen in late summer or early fall.
At more than 10,000 square miles, Harney County is Oregon’s largest county. With only 7,100 residents, it is also one of the least populated. But the world’s attention was focused on it after the armed group, that came from out of state, took over the refuge headquarters in January.
Grasty told The Associated Press recently that he stands by his decision to deny the group use of a county building.
“He had already taken over, with firearms, a whole compound of buildings. And (the request) didn’t make sense to me, nor did it fit public policy about public safety,” Grasty said.
More than two dozen occupiers were arrested amid the takeover, and one was shot dead at a roadblock confrontation with law enforcement officers. Several have pleaded guilty to conspiracy in exchange for the dismissal of a charge of firearms possession in a federal facility. Most of the remaining defendants, including Bundy, are scheduled to go to trial Sept. 7.
Robinson said Harney County recently got a scanning machine for examining ballots and tallying election results; this election will be the second time the county has used it.
He said he is posting on his own Facebook page to try to boost voter participation. The county lacks a radio station and has only a weekly newspaper.
Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter @andrewselsky.