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Published: Monday, 4/11/2005

Elections board: Who's running the store?

The question on the minds of Lucas County voters may well be "What now?"

This after Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell's office ordered the removal of all four members of the Lucas County board of elections last week as punishment for trouble during the November election.

Now, three weeks before a special election that will involve most of the precincts in the county, the most senior administrator is elections Director Jill Kelly, who has been in her current job only since January.

Michael Badik, the deputy director, joined the elections office last month.

Don't look here for a rehashing of the specifics on Mr. Blackwell's 24-page report denouncing the work of the local elections office. It's been done, and is bound to continue in some circles for a while. The question is who is now watching the store.

Workers in the elections office are experienced, and will continue to administer the pending election, hopefully without incident. Ms. Kelly has every appearance of being a quick study, and things seem to be gliding smoothly toward the May 3 vote.

But elections are complicated things in large counties. And things go wrong. Sometimes badly. The problem is that now, if trouble develops, there is no one in an oversight position to make decisions.

Mr. Blackwell's office has kept the county office on administrative oversight, and so it is in charge. But does this mean he will send people up here to run the board temporarily? It's unclear. And if he does, will he send both Democrats and Republicans?

The boardless condition is temporary, lasting only until both local political parties each choose two replacements for the four who were targeted for removal: Democrats Paula Ross and Diane Brown and Republicans Bernadette Noe and Sam Thurber. But it could last for weeks, and probably will last past the May special election.

The matter is further complicated because Mr. Blackwell's office itself appears to be split over the question of how bad things were - and are - at the local elections board. All four board members have said they were assured by Toni Slusser, the secretary's representative, that the board was making progress to remedy administrative problems, and that it may soon be out from under the oversight of Mr. Blackwell. Ms. Kelly said Ms. Slusser told the staff that in a meeting just last month.

So it probably surprised elections officials to see the recommendation last week that all four board members be removed, at a time when the office was apparently improving its work. The divergent assessments by Mr. Blackwell's own officers must have local elections officials wondering who and what in Columbus they should believe. If Mr. Blackwell has no confidence in the local elections leaders, the feeling is no doubt mutual.

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No matter who the local parties select as new board members, none will have a ready, working knowledge of how the elections process works from the inside out. And none will have done the background work to understand, for instance, what type of voting machines the county should purchase. The board recently voted - contrary to a Blackwell directive - that they would prefer to wait to see if a touch-screen voting system might win state approval later this year, which would save the county from having to buy optical-scan equipment.

Touch screens are seen as superior over the long haul because the technology is newer, and because they would minimize the need and expense involved with paper ballots. Over time, touch screens could save the county millions.

Mr. Blackwell had wanted all 88 counties to buy optical-scan equipment, in part to put an end to the debate over voting equipment in Ohio. While Lucas County was not alone in contradicting Mr. Blackwell on the voting machine issue, it may be the most vulnerable now, since the new board members will have to re-examine the issue from scratch.

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Postscript: I had reason to call former Lucas County Treasurer Ray Kest recently for a brief interview about the current race for mayor, and he talked about mistakes in political campaigns. Having touted his money management expertise during the 2001 Toledo mayoral race, he was criticized for having disclosed that he had about $80,000 in credit card debt. Partly because of that, he was drubbed in the election, so he knows about campaign mistakes. But he said during the interview that he has paid it all off and carries no credit card balance. Thought you should know.



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