Democratic Party politics took center stage yesterday in the controversy over the discovery last week of 300 completed but apparently uncounted absentee ballots misplaced since the March 2 primary election, as officials worked to figure out what went wrong.
Paula Ross, chairman of the Lucas County Democratic Party and a member of the county board of elections, sent a written request to county Prosecutor Julia Bates asking for an independent investigation into the matter. She said she also forwarded the same request to the office of Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.
But Ms. Ross, who faces a challenge to her leadership of the county Democratic Party from a group of well-organized opponents, came in for harsh attacks yesterday over her handling of the vote controversy.
At stake may be the outcome of several precinct committeeman races, and therefore the number of seats Ms. Ross - or her opponents - might control on the party's central committee.
That committee will meet soon to decide whether Ms. Ross should remain as chairman. Ross opponents have focused on her double role as party chairman and elections board member, expressing concern that her slate of candidates might benefit from the 300 newfound ballots.
The misplaced ballots, sealed inside a box that was found in a storage room in the elections office more than five weeks after the election, are in the process of being counted and catalogued, said Paula Hicks-Hudson, director of the elections board.
"As a board member, I am committed to insure that every vote cast is counted," Ms. Ross wrote in her letter to Ms. Bates. "Until it is determined how the ballots in question came to be in the computer room rather than the ballot room, who handled those ballots, and whether they were previously counted, neither the board members nor the public can be free of doubts about the integrity of the process by which our votes are counted and recorded."
John Borell, assistant prosecutor and Republican who, on Ms. Bates' behalf, represents the elections board in legal matters, said yesterday he has discussed with Ms. Bates the request for an investi-
gation, but that he is unsure what she will decide.
Jerry Chabler, a leading member of the Ross opposition group, Coalition of Concerned Democrats, said it would be a conflict of interest for Ms. Bates or her staff to conduct the investigation because Ms. Bates is a strong supporter of Ms. Ross in her campaign to win re-election as chairman.
Mr. Chabler pointed to a piece of campaign literature mailed to voters before the primary election that featured Ms. Bates praising Ms. Ross and urging support "to keep our winning team together."
"It's really a joke," Mr. Chabler said. "There should be an objective, independent review. If not, this is going make the Palm Beach County, Florida, 2000 presidential election look like a Sunday school picnic compared to all the screw-ups and incompetence under Paula's leadership prior to and after the March 2 primary. She was chairman of the board the night of the election."
Ms. Ross relinquished her chairmanship of the elections board days after the primary.
"I want Paula to know that some of us were born at night, but it wasn't last night," Mr. Chabler said.
Ms. Ross countered that "as a board of elections member, I want an investigation to assure that voters can have confidence in the work that we do, period. That is separate from any concerns I might or might not have as Democratic Party chair."
Carlo LoParo, spokesman for Mr. Blackwell, said his office would not get involved until the county elections staff completes an internal inquiry.
"While we appreciate the request for an investigation by the secretary of state, the board didn't necessarily have to request a review, because the issue caught our attention rather quickly," Mr. LoParo said. "Mr. Blackwell sees a persistent and troubling pattern of administration deficiencies at the Lucas County Board of Elections.
"The secretary of state will ask a series of tough questions to the Lucas County Board of Elections and to the elections staff, and he will be carefully scrutinizing the answers."
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