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Lucas county

Elections director, deputy to be fired

Husted says they erred on provisional ballots



Saying they failed to follow instructions on how to count provisional ballots in the Nov. 2 election, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted Thursday ordered the firing of the top two staffers at the Lucas County Board of Elections, Director Linda Howe and Deputy Director Jeremy Demagall.

Mr. Husted's intervention is the latest ripple from the election in which the counting of more than 4,000 provisional ballots changed the outcome of two races on the ballot: Lucas County commissioner and a Springfield school district levy.

The Republican secretary of state said, "We plan to continue to review the overall operations" of the elections board.

Mr. Husted said in his letter to elections' board Chairman Patrick Kriner that Ms. Howe, a Democrat, and Mr. Demagall, a Republican, went against "explicit guidance" from his predecessor, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, in recommending that 114 provisional ballots be counted.

The ballots were cast in the right building, but at the wrong precincts. The board allowed them to be counted based on the assumption that the voters had been given the wrong precinct envelope by poll workers.

State law requires voters to vote only in the precinct where they reside. Mr. Husted indicated the only exception to that rule stems from a court case involving homeless people, and the 114 voters did not fall within the exception.

Mr. Husted ordered the two to be terminated at the board's next scheduled meeting, which is Friday at 2 p.m.

"In preparation for the official canvass of the results of the November 2, 2010, election on November 12, 2010, the director of the Lucas County Board of Elections advised members of the Board to count certain provisional ballots that were not permitted to be counted under state law. The Deputy Director did not object to the Director's advice," Mr. Husted wrote in his letter.

He said his terminations are "unfortunate."

Mr. Husted's letter was sent to Mr. Kriner who went to the board's downtown Toledo office about 4 p.m. Thursday to deliver the news to Ms. Howe and Mr. Demagall.

Board of Elections staffers dabbed away tears as they came out of a meeting in which the terminations were announced.

It was not immediately clear who would replace the two officials.

Neither Ms. Howe nor Mr. Demagall returned phone calls seeking comment. Mr. Kriner, a Republican, declined to comment and Ben Marsh, another Republican board member, did not return calls.

Elections Board Member Ron Rothenbuhler, a Democrat, said it was his understanding that the board is required to follow the direction of the secretary of state, who oversees elections and boards of elections in Ohio, and fire both of the employees.

Mr. Husted announced in February that he would investigate the Lucas County office following complaints from county Republican Chairman Jon Stainbrook and defeated county board of commissioners' candidate George Sarantou about the handling of provisional ballots in the Nov. 2 election. Mr. Husted's representatives visited the board office March 10.

Ms. Howe was "uncooperative and adversarial" to investigators from the secretary of state's office, a source close to the investigation told The Blade.

Mr. Sarantou was leading Democrat Carol Contrada in the unofficial count on Election Night by 1,376 votes. When 4,158 provisional ballots were added and then recounted on Dec. 2, Ms. Contrada emerged the winner by 193 votes. The additional provisional ballots also changed the outcome of a school levy question in Springfield Township, allowing the proposed levy to pass.

Mr. Sarantou unsuccessfully challenged the outcome in court, saying hundreds of ballots were counted that should have been thrown out because of inadequate voter identification and other flaws.

One set of flaws Mr. Sarantou complained about was provisional ballots that were cast in the wrong precinct, but at the right polling location.

Mr. Sarantou on Thursday welcomed the secretary of state's action and said he spoke to Mr. Husted last week. He said it was important to restore public confidence in elections.

"He said he knew there were a lot of issues and he said he would deal with it forthrightly. I appreciate it and respect his decision," Mr. Sarantou said, relating his conversation with Mr. Husted. "When my team went through everything, we identified somewhere around 1,500 provisional votes where there were mistakes in some form. He's identified 114 that were handled in the most egregious method, but I think there are other things they probably found."

Mr. Stainbrook said Thursday night the secretary of state's action supports the complaints he's voiced about the board for several years.

He said that Ms. Howe and her Democratic assistants on the board staff were given too much leeway to validate provisional ballots and the Republicans on the staff and on the four-person board let it happen.

"The whole idea was to count as many provisional votes as they could. They never thought George Sarantou would question the election," Mr. Stainbrook said.

"They are partisan Democrats obviously with an agenda and the Republicans [on the board] are nowhere on this."

He said the board's failure to prevent illegally cast ballots from being counted not only affected Mr. Sarantou's race, but might have put the Springfield levy over the top.

"This will not reverse the election. It doesn't put George Sarantou into the county commission's seat he clearly won," Mr. Stainbrook said. "The residents of Springfield are now burdened with a tax levy they didn't approve.
"It's a step in the right direction but how can the board be trusted to fix the mismanagement?" Mr. Stainbrook asked.

A past Republican poll worker, Keith Carr, Thursday defended Ms Howe and Mr. Demagall in comments made on "I know the system and I know the directives. These two are a GREAT CREDIT to Lucas County and are only political pawns for "JS" and The Blade."

Ms. Howe has repeatedly denied being motivated by partisan intent. She told The Blade earlier this week that she felt she was following the former Democratic secretary of state's directives.

City Councilman Rob Ludeman, a Republican and an elected official who regularly volunteers on Election Day and is the father of board employee Mary Mikesell, criticized the secretary of state's action.

Mr. Ludeman said that to fire two people Mr. Husted should have become personally involved rather than send representatives to the board office.

"I think the board of elections has never functioned as efficiently as during the time that Linda and Jeremy have been the heads of the board of elections," Mr. Ludeman said.

He said he would urge the board not to act immediately on the directive from Mr. Husted, but to put off action until after the May 3 special election.

The letter says that Ms. Howe and Mr. Demagall were instructed by the previous secretary of state how to handle the 114 ballots that were cast in the wrong precinct, but that the ballots were counted in violation of those instructions.

"The director received explicit guidance via email on the subject of the [Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless] exception for provisional ballots just days before the Board meeting [of Nov. 12],'' Mr. Husted's letter said.

It continued, ‘‘Despite this guidance, the Director improperly advised the Board to remake and count all 114 provisional ballots cast at the right polling place but in the wrong precinct ..."

Of the 114 ballots, 95 were cast in Toledo precincts, while the rest were voted in Sylvania, Maumee, Oregon, and Jerusalem, Springfield, Monclova, and Sylvania townships.

The county elections board has been the subject of turmoil for years.

Ms. Howe, a former elections board member and director in Henry County, was appointed in July, 2008, after two directors resigned in quick succession: Democrat Daniel Pilrose and Republican Jill Kelly.

At the time of Ms. Howe's appointment, Ms. Brunner announced that she would provide "transitional support" because of leadership concerns with the presidential election less than four months away at the time.

The Lucas County board was directly under a previous secretary of state's oversight from 2002 to 2006.

Contract Tom Troy at:, or 419-724-6058.

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