The battle over who will be SAG’s leading lady — Melissa Gilbert or Valerie Harper — looks certain to be prolonged.

The Screen Actors Guild had planned to announce election results Friday, but it has become highly unlikely that the presidential race and more than 40 other contests will go unchallenged due to discrepancies in how ballots were handled and the SAG staff’s refusal to go public with the info until the tail end of the campaign.

SAG’s staff has downplayed the situation as a “non-issue” and blamed Sequoia Voting Systems for the decision to send out 24,000 New York ballots without signature lines on the return envelopes or instructions to sign, unlike the other 74,000 ballots. Staff also has insisted that unsigned ballots are valid.

Robin Johnson, Sequoia’s manager of nongovernmental services, told Daily Variety on Wednesday that he made the decision to send out New York ballots without signature lines on the envelopes or signature instructions. And in a stunning revelation, Johnson disclosed that SAG staff has covered up the discrepancies for more than two weeks until responding to inquiries late Tuesday (Daily Variety, Oct. 31).

Johnson said no one on SAG’s staff questioned why the signature line and instructions had been removed when they approved proofs of the New York ballot packets, which were then mailed Oct. 12. “The absence of the signature line wasn’t something I would expect them to notice,” Johnson added.

However, SAG became aware of the discrepancies around Oct. 15. Johnson said SAG staffer Ruth Baptiste in the New York office notified him at that point that a SAG member had inquired about the lack of the signature instructions.

In response, Johnson emailed Baptiste an explanation. But SAG staff remained silent Wednesday as to why it had not told the candidates and guild membership about the discrepancies. New CEO Bob Pisano has not issued a comment.

Admits error

Johnson admitted that he erred by not making certain that the 98,000 national ballots were uniform. “I did this when I was busy and did not follow through,” he added. “We handle a lot of elections.”

Johnson also downplayed evidence that emerged Wednesday that SAG had violated the New York branch’s bylaws and rules of procedure, which state explicitly that return envelopes of ballots must be signed.

“Members are required to sign the outer envelope in which the second envelope marked ‘Ballot’ is enclosed,” the rules say. “If no signature appears on the outer envelope, the ballot will be considered void and the envelope will not be opened.”

Johnson said he believes federal court rulings back up his position that such signatures are not required. But losing candidates — both for the three national posts of president, secretary and treasurer and the regional posts in New York — are likely to contend that internal SAG rules should be followed to the letter.

Johnson refused to comment on whether Sequoia will pay for a new election or whether he expects to be disciplined.

Meeting called off

An emergency meeting of the elections committee was first scheduled for Wednesday and then called off. The campaign camps took a cautious stance toward the ballot issue, with Gilbert and Harper not commenting directly.

Treasurer candidate Amy Aquino, part of Gilbert’s slate, said, “I think the discrepancy in our ballots is a non-issue as long as we’re in compliance with Dept. of Labor rules.” She added that she was more concerned over potential impacts of bioterrorism on campaign mailings during the past two weeks.

Anne-Marie Johnson, a candidate for 1st VP and a member of Harper’s slate, said, “This does not cause Valerie Harper or the Actors Moving Forward slate any concern at this point. We trust that Bob Pisano will look into this.”

Gene Feldman, an independent candidate for the Hollywood board, said the situation is “unfortunate” because it will likely continue to polarize SAG’s elected leaders. “The last thing we need now is something else to fight about,” he added.