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Published: Thursday, 3/4/2004

Improper markings, write-ins delay tally

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

For an election that attracted the lowest voter turnout in the state, 18.2 percent, Lucas County elections officials had some big problems to deal with on election day - problems they ll be dealing with for weeks to come.

Election officials were still counting corrupted absentee ballots several hours past midnight Tuesday, and are still collating results of a contentious grass-roots battle for control of the county Democratic Party.

Elections Director Joe Kidd said elections workers ran into some unexpected problems processing hundreds of absentee ballots because the electronic optical scan machine designed to read them was having trouble interpreting ballots that were marked improperly. Some ballots had an “X” marked in the spot where voters were supposed to blacken a circle to designate their choices.

Others simply circled the name of the favored candidate. Teams of workers made up of a Republican and a Democrat had to work together to remake those improperly completed ballots so the machines would count them.

“There was no way to expect that problem until we started running the ballots through the scanner,” Mr. Kidd said. “It s not like this is a simple process. There is a procedure that must be followed.”

The delay in processing ballots is nothing compared to the waiting game now facing the group of disaffected Democrats who want to toss Paula Ross from her perch as chairman of the Lucas County party.

Having worked for months preparing for yesterday s election, where delegates were elected to the committee that chooses the chairman, they will now have to wait perhaps another month to find out how their slate of delegates fared.

That delay is triggered by a combination of factors:

• A state law prohibits boards from counting the ballots during the 20 days immediately after the election, a provision designed to allow the elections boards to get organized for their official count, and to allow ballots from civilian and military voters overseas to return to the county elections office, said Carlo LoParo, spokesman for Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.

• Many candidates for the Democratic Party central committee were write-in candidates, and workers at some precincts Tuesday did not count those write-in votes and record the results on a worksheet provided by the elections board, or did not place those worksheets in a place where elections board workers could find them easily.

Once the tallying of votes was completed at each precinct after polls closed Tuesday, the ballots are sealed and must remain so until that 20-day period expires.

Mr. Kidd said workers are searching the equipment bags issued to each precinct to find the paperwork that could give them a more complete picture of where the Democratic precinct battle stands.

He said he is hopeful most of that paperwork will be found and compiled “certainly by the beginning of next week.” But a definitive result in the precinct races will have to wait until the county completes its official count three weeks from now.

Once the official count begins, Mr. Kidd said the board workers will have to sort through all the write-in ballots one at a time, some of which are likely to be riddled with errors made by voters.

He said one precinct summary sheet in Ward 10, for instance, indicated that Al Sharpton won three write-in votes for precinct committeeman. Another problem: The summary sheet in Ward 1 Precinct F contained votes for Raymond Lorton as a write-in for Republican precinct committeeman - but Mr. Lorton was running as a Democrat.

It will take days to sort through the ballots in the county s 495 precincts.

Ms. Ross estimated that results are unclear in about 70 precincts, but after an initial analysis of the partial results, said, “I am very pleased.”

“I believe that people supporting me were among the victors rather than the losers,” she said.

“I am an optimist by nature, but we have to wait and see what the certified count is,” said Jerry Chabler, one of those opposed to Ms. Ross.

There were 697 Democrats running in the county s 495 precincts, with 191 contested precinct committeeman races.

Statistics compiled by Mr. Blackwell s office showed that Lucas County voters went to the polls Tuesday in the lowest percentage of any county in the state.

Mr. LoParo said it is likely because there were no major issues on the ballot, and because Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry was projected to sweep Ohio.

“If voters don t feel they have a choice or don t like the choices put before them, they may opt to find out more about the candidates and go to the polls in the general election and cast their ballots that way,” he said. “That s what typically drives local elections - local issues, specifically in a primary - issues that ll be decided by that day s vote, and not simply nominating processes.”



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