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Published: Wednesday, 5/5/2010

Web posting of vote stirs ethics storm

BY CLAUDIA BOYD-BARRETT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The fight for control of the Lucas County Republican Party yesterday spilled over into Facebook with an elections board employee Monday posting how a top Toledo executive had voted at the county's early voting center.

A comment posted on a Facebook page by a board employee indicated how Allan Block, chairman of Block Communications, Inc., parent company of The Blade, had voted.

The comment, written by Trish Birmingham Moore on the Facebook page of former county commissioner Maggie Thurber, allegedly referred to Lucas County Republican Party chairman Jon Stainbrook as a “snake” and claimed that Mr. Block voted for Mr. Stainbrook.

The posting sparked an outcry from Mr. Stainbrook and his supporters, who claimed the comment was a sign that voting privacy was being violated and that there was bias at the board of elections against Mr. Stainbrook.

At stake in yesterday's primary election was the outcome of 320 precinct committee races, which will determine who will control the county Republican Party: Mr. Stainbrook or Toledo lawyer Jeff Simpson.

Mr. Stainbrook said it was still too early to know the outcome of all the races but added ‘‘we have a comfortable lead,'' based on unofficial returns as of midnight.

In an e-mail sent Monday night to Linda Howe, director of the board of elections, Lucas County Central Committee Chairman Meghan Gallagher — a Stainbrook ally — expressed concern about the Facebook posting and demanded that it be referred to an independent prosecutor for investigation.

“I would like to know why Trish Moore is discussing what voters are coming in to the early vote center and how they voted,” Ms. Gallagher wrote. “Your employees should not be revealing on the Internet how people vote.”

In an interview at board of elections offices yesterday, Ms. Howe said she had received the e-mail and would investigate it today, once the primary election is over.

Ms. Howe said Ms. Moore, a permanent part-time employee of the elections board working at the early voting center downtown when Mr. Block voted Monday, had no way of knowing how somebody would vote, and the comment could only be speculation. She declined to say whether the employee would be disciplined, saying she would wait for the results of the investigation.

“I'm not happy about it but I'm not going to say anything about it until I give [Ms. Moore] a chance to give me her explanation,” Ms. Howe said. She said all employees of the board sign an ethics policy.

Ms. Howe was adamant that no one could have accessed Mr. Block's voting information on the voting machines. She said memory cards on the machines are protected by seals and can only be read using special software which board employees do not have access to.

She said tapes that record a paper trail of voting are sealed and locked inside a canister in the machine that cannot be accessed. Those canisters are then sealed in a bag after the elections are over and are not opened unless there is a recall.

Michelle Dudley, information technology manager for the board of elections, said there was no evidence Monday that anyone had accessed the machines improperly. The seals on voter records in the machines immediately show the words “void” if they are interfered with.

“The machines have not been tampered with, the seals have not been broken,” Ms. Dudley said.

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But Ms. Gallagher, a former elections board employee, said Ms. Howe is incorrect about the security of the paper tape within the voting machines. She said it is possible to open a voting machine without breaking the seal and to view the voting results of the last person who voted on the tape because it is still outside the canister.

Her concerns were echoed by Joe Kidd, a former director of the Lucas County board of elections, who said it is possible to breach voter security.

“I know that if you really want to find out how someone has voted, you can,” Mr. Kidd said. “Any credible allegation that an employee of the elections board has knowledge of how someone voted must be dealt with at once. Failure to do so, is failure of the public trust of the highest order.

“As an elections director, you take an oath to uphold the Constitution. There is no right more fundamental under the Constitution than the right to cast a secret ballot,” Mr. Kidd said. “By not immediately suspending the employee, the director has violated her oath and made a mockery of the elections board. Both the director and employee should be fired.”

The voting machines used by Lucas County are manufactured by Election Systems and Software (ES&S), who did not return a request for comment yesterday.

However, Joseph Lorenzo Hall, a researcher at the UC Berkeley School of Information who participated in two studies on voting machine security in 2007, said it is possible for someone to crack open the sealed voter tape, although it would require deliberate tampering. He said the canisters that protects the tapes on the ES&S machines he's seen are quite flimsy.

Mr. Hall said it would be possible for election officials looking at a tape to work out who had cast a vote if they kept count of the number of voters on that machine and the order in which they voted. The tape does not record the names of voters.

The researcher expressed deep surprise at the incident surrounding Ms. Moore. He said regardless of whether or not she had tampered with a voting machine, the Facebook comment in itself raises ethical questions and would likely hurt voter confidence.

“It really strikes me as unethical for any person who is an election administrator to do something like this,” Mr. Hall said.

Board of Elections employees, including Ms. Moore, have to sign a form that acknowledges receipt of the boards' ethics policy. The ethics policy states that “[p]ublic officials and employees are prohibited from disclosing or using information that is deemed confidential by law.”

Mr. Stainbrook said that an investigation into the matter surrounding Ms. Moore should be undertaken right away.

“What happens today?,” he asked. “There's a lack of administerial oversight. The board is asleep at the wheel when their employees are behaving in this manner.”

Robert Bennett, recent past chairman of the Ohio Republican Party and a lawyer, said Ms. Howe and the board should not have waited until today to take action if they have reason to believe an employee disclosed a voter's vote.

“She should be let go,” he said. He said the board, which is required by law to be in session all day long, should have suspended her immediately, rather than wait until today. Board of Elections employees serve at the pleasure of the board.

“You're dealing in a business where the appearance of wrongdoing is vitally important,” Mr. Bennett said. “I think the board, having notice and proof on it, should take a vote to suspend her immediately, it should be unanimous, pending an investigation.”

He said the board has the right to reimburse if the investigation exonerates her. He said if it turns out that she assumed how Mr. Block was going to vote, a reprimand would be called for.

But Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner said Ms. Howe was “proceeding appropriately.”

“She has indicated the matter will be investigated once the election is over,” Ms. Brunner said. “At this point, the board's primary responsibility is to successfully tabulate the results of [yesterday's] election.''

Ms. Brunner added that it would be premature for the secretary of state to get involved in the matter.

Mr. Block said he has no reason to believe the comment on the Facebook page is anything other than someone's idle speculation about how he voted. He said he never discussed or revealed to anyone in the voting precinct how he was going to vote.

He agreed it would be an “absolute violation” if, hypothetically, someone was able to tap into the voting machine and find out how he voted. But he made it clear he has no reason to believe anyone did that, and is not by any means making that allegation.

“Someone may be speculating that I voted for [Mr.] Stainbrook. If they know that for a fact, that's an absolute violation,” Mr. Block said. “Somebody may have seen me and assumed I voted for Jon Stainbrook. I didn't tell anyone [at the voting precinct] how I voted.”

Mr. Block acknowledged voting on the Republican ballot, pointing out that eventually “becomes a matter of public record.”

Ms. Thurber declined to comment on Ms. Moore's post. She said the issue had nothing to do with her and was simply a comment somebody else posted on her personal Facebook page. She expressed anger that her name was being tied to the controversy.

Patrick Kriner, chairman of the board of elections and a Republican, said he supports Ms. Howe's intent to investigate after the election is over. And he expressed confidence that the touch-screen voting machines could not have been violated without it becoming immediately apparent.

“It may very well be a violation of policy or the law; we don't know that yet. What brings me concern is there is no way she knew how that individual voted. The way our procedures are set up the workers here at the vote center do not have the ability to get into the machines and find out how anyone individual voted without other people knowing that they did it,” Mr. Kriner said.

“She may have been making an assumption.”

Republican Benjamin Marsh said only, “Obviously there's got to be an investigation.”

Democrat board member Ron Rothenbuhler said, “I don't know how somebody would be able to tell what was on the ballot.” He supported the investigation, saying, “everyone's innocent until proven guilty.”

Staff writers Tom Henry and Tom Troy contributed to this report.

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: cbarrett@theblade.comor 419-724-6272.



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