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Published: 4/15/2004

Lucas County elections board gets more time

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell announced yesterday he will give the Lucas County Board of Elections more time to sort out problems with its official tally of votes cast in the March 2 primary election and to certify its final results.

Mr. Blackwell will waive tomorrow's Friday deadline for Lucas County, giving the four-member elections governing board until 4 p.m. Tuesday to certify its results, according to an e-mail sent to board members from Pat Wolfe, Mr. Blackwell's elections director.

The deferment comes after the discovery of 300 completed but uncounted ballots in a sealed box in a storage room at the elections office in Government Center. The misplaced ballots were found April 8, five weeks after the primary. They could influence the outcomes of several close local races, such as the Otsego Local School District bond levy. It was approved by an unofficial 33 votes.

"In discussions with the board members and finding out what happened, we felt the situation is easily correctable, and we felt it prudent to give the board more time to make sure all the policies are being followed and that the ballots are all counted," said Carlo LoParo, spokesman for Mr. Blackwell.

"The [certification] deadline was a deadline set by the secretary of state. It is not established in statute. In light of this situation, we deemed it appropriate to provide the board more time to certify its votes," he said.

"Secretary Blackwell's first priority was to make sure that all the votes are counted. That will be possible," Mr. LoParo said.

Bernadette Noe, chairman

of the elections board, had requested an extension to give the board more time to find answers to questions about the ballots.

Local elections officials are working to determine who put the boxes of misplaced ballots in the storage room and how they were overlooked. Ms. Noe said yesterday that elections Director Paula Hicks-Hudson and deputy Director Joe Kidd are looking into the matter.

"I have instructed Paula and Joe to begin reconstructing events starting at the closing of the polls on Election Day and to work forward, working with staff, to the best of their recollections," she said.

Ms. Noe has called for board meetings both Monday and Tuesday. Monday's meeting is to gauge the progress of the investigation into the misplaced ballots. On Tuesday the board will meet to certify the election results.

The office is going through each of the uncounted ballots and using the precinct code to sort them and then count them, Ms. Hicks-Hudson said.

The county board remains under the administrative oversight of Mr. Blackwell's office, having been placed on the secretary's watch list in May, 2002, after an investigation of the office turned up irregularities. That investigation led to several personnel changes in key positions at the office, but problems have cropped up during elections since, as new leaders became familiar with elections operations and wrestled with the transition from antiquated lever voting machines to various types of electronic voting equipment.

Mr. LoParo said there may be more fallout for the local elections board.

"Ballots aren't lost in boards of elections in Ohio. Elections are a people process. People make mistakes. It was caught this time because safeguards are in place, but there should be safeguards at the front end to prevent it from happening. We are going to be taking a hard look at the Lucas County Board of Elections," he said.

"In terms of the election, it will have a happy ending," Mr. LoParo said, because all the votes will be counted. "In terms of election administration, that is still an open question."

Contact Fritz Wenzel at:

fritz@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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