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Published: Thursday, 5/15/2008

No excuse for discarded votes

VOTING is one of the most important civic duties performed by any American citizen, a responsibility that should not be treated cavalierly by election officials. Yet that is exactly what happened when the Lucas County Board of Elections threw out 921 absentee ballots from the March 4 primary because voters failed to seal their ballots inside privacy envelopes that were too small for the purpose.

Instead, these voters were needlessly disenfranchised because they sealed the ballots and privacy envelopes separately inside a larger prepaid, preaddressed mailing envelope and sent the whole package back to the elections board.

Adding to the confusion, large, block-letter instructions on the outside of the mailing envelope said: "ABSENTEE VOTER BALLOTS PLEASE DO NOT BEND," leading voters to the entirely reasonable conclusion that they were not supposed to fold the ballots to fit into the privacy envelope.

As a result, many people whose votes weren't counted - including Ben Marsh, the former chairman of the county Republican Party and a former elections board member - told The Blade that they believed they followed the instructions exactly.

We think they were right.

What makes the error particularly frustrating is that it did not need to happen. Republican activist Jon Stainbrook warned then-Elections Director Jill Kelly about the problem but, inexplicably, no action was taken. Ms. Kelly, now deputy director of the board of elections, also was in charge last year when the board had to reprint and remail thousands of Democratic absentee ballots because of incorrect wording in a congressional race.

Simply put, discarding the 921 votes appears to have been unnecessary. In Wood County, in instances such as this, an elections official calls voters to verify that they intended to put the ballot in the privacy envelope. No harm, no foul. Their votes are counted.

Officials in Lucas County did turn to Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner for a ruling. Unfortunately, Ms. Brunner showed less concern for discarded votes than she has for creating a voting paper trail. She decided - too narrowly, we believe - that their votes could not be counted. However, circumstances listed in state law that can disqualify a ballot do not include failure to seal the ballot in the privacy envelope.

County elections officials, out of fear that polling places would be overwhelmed by the combination of heavy voter turnout and a directive from Ms. Brunner requiring that paper ballots be available for voters who wanted them, had encouraged absentee voting in the primary. Clearly, that places responsibility for making instructions clear squarely on the shoulders of the elections director at the time, Ms. Kelly.

Apologies have been offered and fixes are in the works. But fixes won't turn back the clock to count those 921 ballots, some of which could have had an impact in close primary races.

And apologies are insufficient when what's at issue is something as fundamentally important to the functioning of democracy as the right to vote.

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