Vote-count blunder infects Mahoning County election

A board of elections has just one job: Conduct two elections a year with honesty, transparency and efficiency so the public’s faith in democracy is reaffirmed.

For the rest of the time, employees at the board update records and shuffle paper – on their computers. It’s no accident that the standard for getting a job isn’t very high. Most employees are called clerks for a reason.

Indeed, political connections are, by and large, the deciding factor for who is hired.

Thus, when a board of elections messes up the vote count on election night, the need for an independent review is obvious.

We, therefore, call on Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted to dispatch a team of elections experts to Mahoning County to find out why Tuesday night’s election was such a disaster.

The use of the word “disaster” is intentional because The Vindicator, as the newspaper of record in this region, was directly affected by the county board of election’s inaccurate vote tallies made public late Tuesday.

The inaccuracy stemmed from the fact that more than 6,000 early-vote ballots were counted twice, thereby skewing the final but unofficial results.

What happened?

Thomas McCabe, the deputy director of the Mahoning County Board of Elections, admits he made a mistake.

McCabe has the support of elections Director Joyce Kale-Pesta and of Atty. David Betras, one of four members of the board of elections and chairman of the county Democratic Party.

McCabe is a Republican; Kale-Pesta a Democrat.

But while the wagons are circled, we believe the timeline of the disaster shows a disturbing lack of judgment.

It is important to remember this isn’t the first major blunder by elections officials in the past couple of years.

In November 2015, the board failed to count 147 write-in votes in the Struthers mayoral contest. The overlooked ballots were from two of the 12 precincts in the small city.

That mistake resulted in a change in the outcome of the race for mayor.

That’s why we believe Secretary of State Husted’s office should conduct an operational review of the Mahoning County Board of Elections.

While McCabe offers a plausible explanation for what occurred, the fact that the board chose not to inform The Vindicator of the error is troubling on many levels.

Indeed, Kale-Pesta and Betras seem to suggest there wasn’t a sense of urgency to correct the initial vote tallies because the outcome of the races did not change.

But it wasn’t just the newspaper that was kept in the dark. Betras claims he was not immediately informed of the discrepancy in the vote count.

Who knew?

It isn’t known whether the other three board members, Democrat Robert Wasko and Republicans Mark Munroe, the county GOP chairman, and Tracey Winbush, were made aware that incorrect results were issued by the elections staff.

Munroe told The Vindicator he was sorry the media weren’t informed about the problem so the public could be informed.

“That wasn’t handled well,” he said. “We should have taken some steps to notify especially the media. We should have taken more steps to get the word out.”

McCabe also apologized.

But such apologies are meaningless, given that Wednesday’s edition of The Vindicator not only had many election-related stories containing the false vote totals, but also had a full page with all the races and issues in Mahoning County – again with the wrong vote totals.

The newspaper published an amended version on Thursday, but there’s no guarantee everyone has seen it.

Therein lies the problem.

The credibility of the board of elections has been damaged, and candidates who lost their races by the narrowest of margins may well not accept the outcome.

Only the secretary of state’s office can reassure a skeptical public that the board of elections is to be trusted.

We also call on Husted, who is running for governor next year, to determine if punishment is warranted.

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