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Published: Sunday, 5/11/2008

921 primary votes tossed in mail flub

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER
West Toledoan Donald Bigney, 78, and his wife, Joyce, 80, sent in absentee ballots. Mr. Bigney said he didn't understand that the 'identification document' was an envelope. West Toledoan Donald Bigney, 78, and his wife, Joyce, 80, sent in absentee ballots. Mr. Bigney said he didn't understand that the 'identification document' was an envelope.
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Lucas County elections officials urged voters before the March 4 primary election to vote by absentee ballot to lessen waits at the polls on election day, but The Blade has learned that hundreds of those ballots were not counted because of mistakes made by voters and because the elections board sent voters faulty ballot envelopes.

The Lucas County Board of Elections rejected 921 ballots because of a mistake in which voters mailed back the ballot with the identification envelope rather than inside the identification envelope. Both ballot and identification envelope went inside a second, larger, prepaid, preaddressed envelope.

The problem? Voter confusion about whether they should fold their ballots so they would fit in the identification envelopes the board of elections sent to voters. The envelopes were a quarter of an inch smaller than the ballots.

Officials at the Lucas County Board of Elections said they are "heartsick" at the large number of uncounted ballots.

But, they said, they are prohibited by state law from counting the absentee ballots that are mailed back outside their identification envelopes despite the voters' clear intent.

The situation, which occurred after a mix-up this year in which the board was forced to reprint and remail thousands of Democratic absentee ballots after the first version was found to be defective, caused disappointment among voters who learned last week from The Blade about the fate of their ballots.

"I put 12 years in the service in this country, between the Army and the Navy, and I sure earned the right to vote," said Donald Bigney, 78, of West Toledo.

<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/TO17150419.GIF> <font color=red><b> VIEW</b></font>: <a href=" /assets/pdf/TO45705511.PDF" target="_blank"><b>List of uncounted absentee ballots</b></a> <img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/TO17150419.GIF> <font color=red><b> VIEW</b></font>: <a href=" /assets/pdf/TO45705511.PDF" target="_blank"><b>List of uncounted absentee ballots</b></a>
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He said he didn't realize the "identification document," which he filled out with his signature and other identifying information, was an envelope into which he was supposed to have inserted his ballot.

"I don't remember seeing another envelope in there," Mr. Bigney said.

Mr. Bigney's name and that of his wife, Joyce, 80, appear in a spreadsheet report produced by the board of elections on the disposition of each of the more than 18,000 absentee ballots that were requested in the recent election.

This election was not the first in which hundreds of ballots quietly have been set aside because of the mistake known to election workers as "ballot outside ID envelope." In the 2007 general election, 344 ballots were rejected for the same reason.

The names of Mr. and Mrs. Bigney and some others appear in the 2007 list as well.

Republican activist Jon Stainbrook and his associate Kelly Bensman said the problem of the disqualified ballots could have affected the outcomes of some races on the March 4 ballot.

The two have been engaged in a running battle with Jill Kelly, the Republican deputy elections director, as well as other Republican board employees, over what they claim is interference in the Republican Party's central committee contest. Mr. Stainbrook is running for the post of county party chairman.

"It's a concern because that's a lot of votes that were disqualified for a simple folding error," said Ms. Bensman, who is helping Mr. Stainbrook in his leadership challenge of party Chairman Robert Reichert. "Every one of those should be counted. Some of these races are won or lost by a handful of votes."

She said she and Mr. Stainbrook warned then-Elections Director Kelly before the election that the absentee ballots didn't fit easily into the envelopes.

At the least, Ms. Bensman said, the elections board could have inserted a card in each envelope advising voters of the importance of folding the ballots, even if no fold line was apparent, she said. That was especially important because voters were cautioned in large black type on the front of the envelope PLEASE DO NOT BEND.

Ms. Kelly last week denied there was a problem with the ballot and denied discussing it with Mr. Stainbrook or anyone else.

She did not agree that voters were confused over how to fold the ballot.

"Voters have to take a little bit of responsibility. There's instructions on the back and it plainly tells you, you have to fold it and place it inside the identification document," Ms. Kelly said. And she noted the department held town-hall meetings to educate voters on how to vote, though the meetings drew only a handful of people.

She said county elections officials "bent over backwards" to make sure absentee voter ballots were counted. She asked the Ohio Secretary of State for permission to count the ballots, but was denied.

Several problems might have misled some voters.

The voter is told to fold the ballot and place it inside the identification document. But the "identification document" is an envelope.

The instruction to fold could be confusing because of the lack of a clear score line on the ballot where it should be folded, leaving voters to make their own crease.

"We have done everything humanly possible," Ms. Kelly said. "That was the best score [Dayton Legal Blank printing company] could give us.

"It is heartbreaking to open up the outside envelope and find out that they didn't put it in that inner identification envelope, but it's a statutory requirement," she said. "We talked to the prosecutor. We said, 'Give us permission to count them.' And then we ended up calling the secretary of state, which said, 'absolutely not.'•"

David Keeler, president of Dayton Legal Blank, which makes ballots and envelopes for Lucas County and more than 130 other political jurisdictions, said printing score marks in a ballot is a "delicate balance." He said the score - an embossed impression across the page where a fold should be made - can interfere with processing of the ballot through the scanner if it's too deep or if it coincides with the black timing marks along both edges of the page.

"I'll be the first to admit they're hard to see," Mr. Keeler said. He said the solution might be to improve the instructions.

The March 4 primary election drew record turnouts and featured numerous races. Two races garnered an unusual level of voter interest - the Democratic presidential nomination contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and the renewal of a 0.75-percent wage tax by the city of Toledo.

The use of absentee voter ballots has exploded in the two years since the Ohio General Assembly changed the law to allow anyone to cast an absentee ballot regardless of whether the voter is absent from the county on Election Day.

In the weeks leading up to the March 4 primary, Ms. Kelly was worried that a directive from the secretary of state requiring paper ballots to be available as an option to voters on Election Day would lead to long lines and delays in counting the vote.

To reduce the pressure on Election Day, the board launched a public relations campaign urging voters to use absentee ballots.

As a result, 18,929 ballots were cast through the absentee method, a huge increase over previous years. Of the 17,676 ballots that were returned by Election Day, 1,570 were disqualified for a variety of reasons. Those reasons included the wrong driver's license number written on the ballot envelope, a signature that didn't match the one on file, and failure to insert the ballot in the envelope. By far the largest category was "ballot outside ID envelope."

In all, about 9 percent of all absentee ballots were not counted by elections officials - just more than 1 percent of all the 133,606 total votes cast in the March 4 election.

Most of the voters contacted by The Blade whose ballots were not counted because of the "ballot outside ID envelope" problem insisted they had followed the directions exactly, recalling no problems with the folding of the ballot.

Several were suspicious of some funny business with their ballot.

Ben Marsh, 81, of South Toledo was one of the absentee voters whose ballot was not counted. As a former Lucas County Republican Party chairman as well as a former member of the county board of elections, he was certain he had submitted his ballot correctly.

"I think I did it right. My impression is that I followed the instructions," Mr. Marsh said. "That's disappointing. How do you prove it one way or another at this point?"

Later, after speaking to Lynn Olman, a Republican member of the board of elections, Mr. Marsh said he apparently goofed.

"Well, if that's the case, then I made a mistake. I don't think there was anything confusing in the instructions. I intended to put it in the smaller envelope," Mr. Marsh said, adding that not having his vote counted in an election was a first for him since he was 21.

Roland Herdter, 85, of West Toledo said he followed the rules exactly.

"I put the ballot in the jacket and the jacket was in the envelope. There was no problem with the way the ballot was folded, absolutely none, so I imagine it's their error," Mr. Herdter said. "I followed the instructions to a T."

Raymond Ortyl, 68, a retired Toledo high school social studies teacher, who helped his wife, Paulina, 67, and his mother, Sophia, 91, all of the same Old Orchard address, complete the forms, said, "I know we filled them out correctly.

"It's disappointing after all the time and effort we put into filling them out," Mr. Ortyl said.

Gary Johnson, a member of the Lucas County board of elections, said he fielded complaints from several absentee voters over whether they should fold the ballot.

"I had several voters that I talked to personally that were afraid to bend the ballot for fear it wouldn't be counted and they were afraid to put it in the envelope," Mr. Johnson said.

But he said the problem came to light after the ballots had been mailed out - too late to have reprinted the ballots or added a warning note.

Patrick Gallaway, communications director of the Ohio Secretary of State, said he was not aware of any other Ohio counties with a large number of ballots being invalidated for the "ballot outside the ID envelope" reason.

"All 921 were not counted because they were attached to the envelope but not inserted in the envelope? That's very unfortunate," Mr. Gallaway said. He said the board did the right thing in not counting the ballots if they arrived not sealed inside the secure envelope.

"That's very unfortunate. We never want to hear of anyone not having their ballot counted," Mr. Gallaway said.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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